Japan Animator Expo (Shorts #1-12)

One of the things that I've always admired about Japanese animation is that there are few other places where animation is being pushed in such unique, creative, and diverse directions on a regular basis. Sure, we get plenty of by-the-numbers slice of life, and cheaply animated Shonen, but in-between stuff like that there are pockets of extravagant experiments that push the boundary of what animation is capable of. So I always get excited when animators and directors are given prime opportunities to go nuts and try out their weird ideas with a budget, a studio, and an audience.

A recent example of such an opportunity is the Japan Animator Expo. Headed by legendary anime director Hideaki Anno's Studio Khara, the Japan Animator Expo is a project meant to spotlight talent in the industry, both new and experienced, through a collection of thirty shorts streaming online. At the time of writing a total of twelve shorts have been made, and I've decided to take a look at each of them and give some background information on both the shorts and some of the people behind them, along with giving my personal thoughts and reactions. If you want to watch any of the shorts mentioned here, they're all streaming free and legally with English subtitles on the Expo's site (which I'll include a link to at the end of the article.) So, might as well jump right in.

The Dragon Dentist

The first short to come from the Expo, The Dragon Dentist is a creation of the novelist Otaro Maijo, who created, wrote, and directed the short with animation director Kazuya Tsurumaki, aka the co-director of the Evangelion Rebuilds. It follows a young girl overcoming the trials involved with being a "Dragon Dentist", though at the beginning she doesn't seem entirely sure what that line of work entails. Watching The Dragon Dentist is a bittersweet experience, because while it presents a one-of-a-kind world and an intriguing premise, it's merely a taste of what feels like could be a greater, larger story. Then again, that's more of a compliment if anything. It's just that of all the shorts, this one felt the most like it could easily be made into a movie, or even a full series. The brief glimpse of the short's world is absolutely fascinating, a premise with an almost Ghibli-esque fantasy spin that's just waiting to be expanded on more. Alas, it's only around eight minutes long, and it reminds me a lot of how I felt after watching TRIGGER's Little Witch Academia: entertained, but left hungry for more. And, unlike with Little Witch Academia, it's up in the air whether or not this world will ever be expanded on more, though I certainly hope it is. 

The short stands well on its own in areas outside of world building as well. While it doesn't boast as much extravagant animation as some of the other shorts, it features a charming, detailed art style and even some creative, non-intrusive use of CG in the backgrounds. Those who've seen the Evangelion rebuilds will certainly notice similarities in the show's lighting and cinematography, which are both just as exceptional as in those films. The short is also helped by some neat character designs and lots of color that help keep the short pleasing to the eyes. Being only eight minutes long, the short doesn't offer a plentiful amount of story or character depth, but more than I had expected. The short's climax is quite powerful, even though it's about characters I barely knew and a world I'd barely seen, and that's quite a feat by itself. When all's said and done, The Dragon Dentist is an imaginative short that introduces a unique world, but, be warned, watching it may leave you yearning for more, more that may never come.

Hill Climb Girl

As if an attempt to spite me personally, Hill Climb Girl combines the two types of anime I'm least fond of: Fully CG anime, and sports anime. The short is directed by Azuma Tani, a director who mostly has experience in directing anime shorts (go figure!), with character designs by animator/illustrator Mai Yoneyama. The short centers around a biking enthusiast high schooler who strives to win races against one of her fellow biking classmates on the ride to school in the morning, aspiring to be like the pro-biker she idolizes. It has a basic plot without much in the form of original ideas or surprises, but it gets the job done, telling a serviceable story based around simple ideas. With the protagonist not being characterized too extensively, and the primary theme basically coming down to the typical "believe in yourself" routine, it hardly provided a memorable narrative. 

The short features a lush, colorful visual style that creates a nice atmosphere. In addition, the character designs are well done, often having a Kill la Kill vibe to them, which is likely a result of Yoneyama's time animating for the show. As I mentioned though, the short is done with CG animation, and, unfortunately, I personally wasn't a fan of how it came out. Faces sometimes look iffy at certain angles, bodies take unnatural shapes, and the animation often comes off as very stiff. It attempts to emulate the look of 2D anime, and while it can do so just fine when the characters are barely moving, when the movement gets more complex the attempt at emulating that style only makes the CG all the more jarring. So, in the end, Hill Climb Girl is a fun short with a pretty visual style, held back only by so-so CG and an uninspired story.


Out of all of the Expo shorts, this is the main one that drew attention, going somewhat viral after it's release. At the least nearly everyone in the anime community ended up seeing it and having something to say about it, and this isn't too surprising. While I wouldn't call it my favorite short to come out the Expo, it probably stood out the most and easily draws attention with its bizarre "What the hell did I just watch?" factor. The director, Hibiki Yoshizaki, had previously worked on the Evangelion Rebuilds, along with directing the Openings for Ryo Timo's Yozakura Quartet series. The staff also includes animation director/character designer Shuichi Iseki, who did key animation for anime like Kill la Kill and Space Dandy, and features music by Japanese music producer Teddyloid. While it appears to be about a shut in otaku wrestling with the controlling nature of his lifestyle, the short/music video is more of an experience than a straightforward experience, constantly changing directions while staying viscerally bold throughout.

Viewers should be warned, it prominently features sexually explicit content. It's filled to the brim with erotic imagery, which does make it a bit difficult for me to express how fantastic the short looks without coming off as some sort of creep. But in all seriousness, it looks damn near incredible. The use of bright colors and patterns is almost mesmerizing at times, and it gets even more interesting when the short shifts in tone halfway through, and then does so again towards the end. The animation is some of the best boasted by shorts from the Expo as well, featuring both smooth, subtle movements, but also, towards the end, some absolutely over the top action animation. There's been some debate over whether or not the short is just shameless pandering, or if it actually has some depth to it. I, for one, sit in latter camp; yeah, it's overflowing with sexual imagery, but through the journey the protagonist take,s and the little bits of story that is given, there's some fairly clear, underlying themes on the nature of otaku fandom, struggling with an addiction, and even overcoming the regrets of one's past. It may be a bit in-your-face, but the subtext is there, and it's pretty interesting stuff when you actually dig beneath the fan service-y surface, making ME!ME!ME! a short that's visually superb, well directed, and surprisingly meaningful...assuming you can look past the blatantly sexualized imagery.


The fourth short is an old fashioned western titled Carnage. It was directed, designed, and storyboarded by Akira Homma, an animator who'd worked with some big names and had done animation direction for shows such as Mitsuo Iso's Dennou Coil, Masaaki Yuasa's Kemonozume, and Hiroyuki Okiura's A Letter To Momo. Considering all of those directors are largely known for having high quality animation, my interest was certainly piqued. The short follows a one armed, female gunslinger seeking revenge against the men who took her arm and killed her father, leaving a trail of bullets and blood in her wake.

Despite the director's impressive past works on lavishly animated projects, the animation itself isn't really the prime focus of Carnage. It has good animation, but it's pretty simple stuff that doesn't really stand out. What really shines the most in the short is its aesthetic and overall direction. The short keeps a stark adherence to its gritty, wild west premise with fantastic results. Despite its fairly limited animation, however, the short is visually stunning, with great lighting, cinematography, and art direction. The entire thing has an almost rough, dirty look to it that fits perfectly with the short's tone. It also makes great use of coloring and filters to push the show's old fashioned look, and it has a great soundtrack as well.

The story isn't anything all that special, a pretty basic revenge story, but it gets the job done well enough for what it is. Though, similar to The Dragon Dentist, this short felt more like a small glimpse into what could make a greater, larger story, rather than a complete story on its own. (I'd also love to see this expanded on into a film or full series, but, again, who knows if that'll happen?) Carnage may have a simpler story and simpler animation than many of the other Expo shorts, but it still stands out thanks to a great visual style and presentation.

Yoshikazu Yasuhiko & Ichiro Itano: Collection of KeyAnimation Films

Studio Khara sort of cheated on this one. Instead of an actual short, it's actually a montage of Key Animation (AKA, the main frames drawn for anime by key animators, the space between to later be filled in by "in-betweens") by two of the major animators behind the original Mobile Suit Gundam series: Yoshikazu Yasukiko and Ichiro Itano. While short lacks any original content, that isn't to say it's not worth watching. Anyone interested in Japanese animation, especially classic Japanese animation, should definitely check it out. Seeing the original key frames side by side with the final product was really cool for an animation fan like me, and it's interesting to watch as the animation gets more and more complex as the montage goes on, evolving from simple movements and fights into massive, movement heavy space battles. So while it did feel like a bit of a cop-out releasing a montage of old animation rather than a new short, it's still a neat watch for those who want to get a peek into the history of anime animation.

Note: Unfortunately, this short is no longer available on the Animator Expo's website, though they do still have images of some of the material featured in the short.

20min Walk From Nishi-Ogikubo Station, 2 Bedrooms, Living Room, Dining Room, Kitchen, 2mos Deposit, No Pets Allowed 

Let's get something out of the way first: Yes, that is the actual title. Makes it a real pain to talk about it with people with that mouthful of a title, which is too bad because at the time of writing it's actually my favorite short to come out of the Expo. Be warned though, it does have a lot of nudity in it (okay, I swear the fact my two favorite shorts I've mentioned so far have been NSFW is a coincidence, stop looking at me like that!) but it's not overly sexualized like in ME!ME!ME!. The director, Machiro Maeda, has an expansive résumé of storyboarding, design, key animation, and directing, but his most-notable work is being the main visionary behind one of my favorite anime series ever, Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, as the director, storyboarding episodes, and acting as the original character designer for the series. The man in charge of Planning is significant as well, animator Takeshi Honda, as he's one of my personal favorite animators in Japanese animation. So, yes, you could say that with those two people being the driving forces behind the short, I was a little biased going into it.

The short begins with a young woman waking up to discover that something's off in her apartment, when she realizes she's, somehow, been shrunk down to a tiny size. If that wasn't enough, from the eyes of her partner it appears she's actually a cockroach. It's a bizarre premise that's taken in a direction both fun and interesting. And it clearly has some meaning to it, as I see it as a visualization of the woman's internal struggle to make her voice heard to her partner. It has a neat visual style too, as the colors have a nice watercolor vibe to them, and it uses rough lines on the character animation to give it a raw, hand drawn look that really sells effort that went into it. Which is important, because that's really where the short goes above and beyond: The animation. The characters in the short are almost constantly moving in a fashion that isn't often seen in anime: characters stumble and run with a weight that's iconic to Takeshi Honda's style, and the characters are given an immense amount of personality simply by how they move.

The short has everything, from subtle character acting, to fast-paced action moments, and even cuts where they animate the background itself moving frame by frame. If that wasn't enough, in a later scene the tone drastically changes and the animation suddenly becomes more scribbled and frantic in a cut animated by Shinya Ohira, arguably one of the most talented animators of the industry (some of his most recent works include cuts in the Opening of Ping Pong The Animation, and a large cut in the Yuasa-directed episode of Space Dandy). And, like most of his cuts, it's bizarre and abstract, but also overflowing with detail in how the characters move and how the perspective of the shot constantly shifts. When it comes to the short's animation, it's difficult to explain just how beautiful it all looks in motion, but the mastery of the art form of animation shown in it is incredible. It's a brilliantly realized work that must be seen for any fan of animation.

Until You Come To Me

Once again, I couldn't help but feel the Expo cheated a bit on this one. Not only is it not an original work (instead based of the Neon Genesis Evangelion series) but, in addition, it's a bit of a stretch to even call the short "animated". There isn't a whole lot of actual animation in it, more so a collection of illustrations by Tatsuya Kushida (character designer on Parasyte: The Maxim) based on Evangelion and set to some music. In all, there's probably about fifteen seconds of actual animation, only about 5 of it with in-betweens. The short isn't without its strengths, as the illustrations are very pretty to look at and the music complements it all very nicely. Still, in comparison to the immense amount of passion and vision put into most of the other shorts, this one feels pretty underwhelming. And really, that's about all I have to say on it; after all, I can't really say much about what it actually means considering that all I've seen of the Evangelion series are the Rebuilds.

(I'll get to seeing the original series. Eventually.)

Tomorrow From There

The Expo returns to music videos with Tomorrow From Here, featuring a song from the Japanese band Avaivartika. A noteworthy aspect of the short's staff is how female centric it is, especially considering how male dominated the anime industry often is. The short was directed by Akemi Hayashi, an animator who storyboarded and directed episodes of such shows as Penguindrum and Space Dandy, with animation direction by Sayaka Toda. It also has Cheiko Nakamura as art director, who also was art director on both Penguindrum and the currently airing Yuri Kuma Arashi. In opposition to the dark, over the top, and somewhat cynical ME!ME!ME!, Tomorrow From Here takes a more laid back, heartfelt approach. The short is centered entirely on the daily life of a woman working a job as a waitress in what appears to be the near future. The tone makes a transition throughout from the more melancholy side of her daily routine into some more colorful, fantastical visuals, all of which moves in tandem with the attitude and tempo of the music very well. Unlike the sudden, jarring tonal shifts of ME!ME!ME!, this short has a coherent flow to it that feels a lot more natural, which isn't inherently better (the two shorts are clearly conveying different ideas) but I liked the feel of this one a lot more.

It shouldn't come as much of a surprise when the art director has worked frequently with famed anime director Kunihiko Ikuhara, but the visuals in the short are exceptional. The short is overflowing with color, beautiful backgrounds, and terrific use of lighting. The short blends the ordinary and the magical, with results that are a treat for the eyes. From the ordinary parts of the protagonists life, to the novel futuristic devices the short features, and right to the strange but vibrant, imaginary landscapes. I'm also a huge sucker for the character design of the short's protagonist, which is pretty adorable. The animation shines through as well, while it's not quite the extraordinary feat that 20m Walk From Nishi-Ogikubo Station was, the short still has some great animation. It has a similar weight-y feel to the animation that complements the character designs and art style perfectly, and the final stretch even features a great, lengthy cut by the aforementioned Takeshi Honda. Out of the twelve shorts covered here, this most likely comes in a close second as far as my favorites of the Expo to-date goes. It's a richly colored, well-animated short that's both strongly executed and bursting with charm, and the ending always leaves me with a big dumb smile on my face. Absolutely worth a watch.

Denkou Choujin Gridman

The Expo's ninth short marks the first instance of Studio Khara handing off the production of a short to another studio (unless you count the Mobile Suit Gundam montage), with the animation of Denkou Choujin Gridman being handled by studio TRIGGER, known as the studio behind Little Witch Academia and Kill la Kill. The short is an adaptation of the live-action, Japanese superhero series of the same name about a video game character created by children that are being controlled by an inter-dimensional police officer to chase down an evil computer program. It's basically an excuse for a big, robot hero punching monsters a lot (not that there's anything wrong with that). The short was directed by Akira Amemiya, an animator who's worked on a variety of shows, but is most closely tied to the works of Gainax/TRIGGER director Hiroyuki Imaishi (Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill). The short doesn't have much in the form of a story, and is, instead, more of a collection of random fight scenes set to music. 

Easily the most incredible thing about the short is that, with the exception of the sparsely animated shorts (such as Carnage or Until You Come To Me) most of the shorts from the Expo feature a decent sized list of at least eight or more key animators behind them. Denkou Choujin Gridman, on the other hand, was animated by two: Akira Amemiya, the director, and Yusuke Yoshigaki, the character designer. Despite the key animation being done entirely by two people, the short is still surprisingly bountiful in the amount of quality animation it has. It's very much in Imaishi's style of quick, over the top action that's characterized by distinct poses and lightning fast movement in between. The style is a perfect fit for the crazy, retro feel of the short, and the results, while not extravagant, are still impressive in their own right. The fights are exciting and thoroughly entertaining, with tons of satisfying punches, kicks, and transformations, all wrapped up in a presentation clearly meant to emulate the original series while still taking it in a new direction. It's fun, fast, and crazy. Any fan of shows like Gurren Lagann and Kill la Kill will most likely find this short to be an entertaining ride.


If after finishing ME!ME!ME!, you thought to yourself, "well the shorts couldn't possibly get weirder than that", I honestly think this may have. Or, at the least, it comes close. Once again going the music video route, YAMADELOID was directed by Takeshi Horiuchi, who's been everything from episode director, to producer, to chief cinematographer, on various projects alongside animator Masahiro Emoto. Also of significance, the short was supervised by none other than Ichiro Itano, the very animator the fifth short was documenting the works of, and for good reason: Itano revolutionized how action was animated in anime, making it more dynamic and complex than most action animation was at the time. Unlike some of the other music video shorts, YAMADELOID actually does have something resembling a plot...at least, at first. The first act of the short follows a swordsman meeting the woman of his dreams, settling down, and starting a family. Just when it seems he's achieved true happiness, his wife is kidnapped, and he has to fight through a multitude of enemies to get her back. And then, after that.....well...I'm still not entirely sure, but I don't want to spoil anything so I'll just leave off the rest.

Despite finding the short somewhat baffling at times, I did really like it. It's very bizarre, but also very clearly aware of that. The short has a very goofy, tongue in cheek tone to it, constantly throwing in new, unexpected imagery as if simply because it can. Although it does feature some use of still frames in places, the short is very well animated for the most part. The influence of Itano is clear as day, with dynamic action scenes and a constantly moving camera that gets up close and personal to the action. The art style can feel a bit disjointed at times, with so many different kinds of visuals often clashing in scenes, but it works well enough and, in a way, even adds to the short's strange and random nature.

The short also uses a large amount of CG animation later on, and while I wasn't a fan of the CG used in Hill Climb Girl, this time around I was actually very impressed with how it turned out. The CG models are animated very much in-line with how the 2D action was animated, and the models are made in a way that they don't stick out when mixed in with the 2D animation. This is, again, probably largely due to the involvement of Itano, who's been a major proponent of the use of CG in anime. He's been known to work with CG animators to better it's usage, served as CG supervisor on the third Evangelion Rebuild, and was involved in the CG-heavy recent adaptation of Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin (fans of the series Shirobako may remember the character "Kitano" advocating for CG, who was modeled after the animator). YAMADELOID is a strange short, but one that kept me interested and entertained throughout.

Power Plant No. 33

The eleventh Expo short comes from rising star Yasuhiro Yoshiura, who's made a name for himself as of late writing and directing works such as a short series on artificial intelligence called Time of Eve, and an adventure film about a two societies separated by opposite gravitational pulls called Patema Inverted. All the stuff I'd seen from him had been very promising, as I was especially fond of Time of Eve and though Patema Inverted was an interesting and entertaining film at the least, even if it had its share of flaws. With all that in mind, I was interested in seeing this new project from him. The short marks a return to TRIGGER, in tandem with studio Rikka (the studio behind Yoshiura's Time of Eve and Pale Caccoon). The short opens on a civilization that operates entirely on energy gained from sapping a dormant kaiju (giant monster). But the peaceful lives on the people are threatened when a mysterious giant robot appears and attacks the monster, causing widespread destruction as a battle ensues.

The highlight here is less the animation itself, as everything here is actually pretty basic. The CG animation on the robot is quite good, and the kaiju looks great thanks to a cool design and a lavishly painted look to the texture of his scales that made him almost look like walking concept art. But what makes Power Plant No. 33 stand out most of all was its direction. Similar to how Patema Inverted's biggest strength was how Yoshiura used space and perspective to make the layout of the film's scenes constantly creative and interesting, the way Yoshiura sets up his shots here is what really makes the short memorable. The two monsters battling in the city feel enormous, and the fight feels huge because of the insane attention to detail every shot has. There are constantly buildings on the ground or birds flying through the air near the monsters to give a sense of scale, cars shake and city trembles with every movement the giants make. He also makes clever use of different perspectives to better give the battle scale as well. At one point when the giant robot punches the kaiju, throughout the punch there's a shot of the robot winding up the punch from far above, showing how tiny the city looks compared to him, a shot of someone viewing the fist passing by far above from out their window, a shot of the arm and fist overshadowing people running through the streets, and, finally, a shot of the impact from the perspective of the people on that street, flinching and screaming as the city shakes with the impact. It's these plentiful, visual details and smart shot composition that makes what could have been a couple of big CG models hitting each other feel grand and exciting. Even upon second viewing, it gave me goosebumps as the massive kaiju lumbered through the city to meet his foe. Power Plant No. 33 is a perfect example of how a strong director can make a simple idea into a gripping and intense experience.

Evangelion: Another Impact (Confidential)

The final short I'm covering here sees both the return of Evangelion, and the second short done entirely with CG animation. It's directed by Shinji Aramaki, who's been one of the biggest names in Japanese CG animation as the director of the CG Appleseed adaptations and the recent CG Captain Harlock film (which another writer here actually reviewed). The short was created with a team made up primarily of staff who'd worked on the Appleseed film's with Aramaki, such as the designer of the CG Eva Unit, Atsushi Takeuchi, who worked as the mechanical designer on many of the Appleseed projects with studio Sola Digital Arts, the studio that animated the most recent Appleseed film, Appleseed Alpha. As I clarified before, I have little experience with the Evangelion series, so I don't have much to say on the short's place or significance in the franchise's expanded universe. Pretty much all I can say is that the short features an Eva Unit going berserk and escaping to wreak havoc. 

Unlike the CG seen prior in the Expo (or, in all honesty, most CG anime right now) this short in no way tries to emulate the look of typical 2D anime animation. Instead, it goes for a more realistic look, as a highly detailed Eva Unit stumbles through a post-apocalyptic city, with light reflecting off the mecha's armor and buildings crumbling in a Hollywood-esque fashion. In fact, the Eva Unit did look a lot like I always imagined a Hollywood-budget live action Evangelion film would look like if it ever actually happened. It's similar to how the Power Plant No. 33 short does a good job conveying the scale of the mecha, even if not to quite as effective a degree. My biggest issue with the short is that it's just sort of bland. Not a whole lot of interest happens, and then it just sort of ends. The short was pretty and polished, but it didn't really leave anything with me. Perhaps there's more for the fans, but it left me underwhelmed. 


And with that, I wrap up the last of my thoughts on the first batch of shorts to come from the Japan Animator Expo. For those curious, all the shorts I wrote about can be found at the website linked below for free with English subtitles (you may need to click the big "EN" button at the top to change the language) and it should be resuming weekly Friday releases by the time this article is up.


As a whole, so far I'm a big fan of the Expo, as it puts a spotlight on some of the most talented artists in the anime industry right now, and, as a result, there have been some really interesting works to come out of it, and I can't wait to see more.


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