What makes a good action scene? That’s a question filmmakers, animators, critics and fans have been asking themselves for sometimes now, and there’s as many answers as there are people. But maybe there are a few general parameters that we can identify which, used in one way or another, give a scene its character and, perhaps, make it pleasing for the viewer. The following scene from the 1987 movie Dirty Pair: Project Eden provides a good example to explore at least 2 related ideas: readability and rhythm.
The sequence here is close to the climax of the movie: it is the final duel between one of the protagonists, charismatic thief Carson D. Carson, and Bruno, the servant of the evil mad scientist Dr. Wattsman. This little bit of context is necessary to briefly introduce Carson’s personality: who he is as a person influences how he fights. In other words, this isn’t cool action for the sake of it, but this remains character acting – a piece of animation that conveys information about the character. Satoru Utsunomiya, the animator behind this fight, is the one who seems to have struck this balance and, after having understood Carson as a character, who proceeded to create this cool action scene.
“Cool” is also the word that defines Carson: a sort of gentleman-thief, he is strong, good-looking and charismatic. His usual demeanor is usually nonchalant, but he’s also a pro and you can feel that he remains aware of his surroundings: this is precisely the case here. Carson’s very first movement is to come in the frame, notice Bruno’s surprise attack from above, and immediately jump back – he’s very reactive. Timing and posing here are key: the framerate modulation is very complex (basically switching very quickly between 1s and 2s), but the basic idea is as follows. Carson enters quickly and rather fluidly, and then the timing gets more irregular as he comes very close to the camera and suddenly stops, before everything slows down when he jumps back.
There’s a very close attention to the way Carson moves and his body behaves throughout the entire sequence. In the shot between 0:06 to 0:09, his tension is visible in his movement: he’s making slight movements of the arms and shoulders, alternatively trying to evade or perhaps making feints. He never stops moving, creating excitement, anticipation – and surprise, when he suddenly gets hit by his opponent as the spacings also get unexpectedly much wider.
The excitement – which, once again, naturally derives from Carson’s cool attitude – is also produced by a series of ornamental effects which code this scene as an amazing, futuristic fight. First is the sort of flash produced by the contact between Bruno’s lightsaber when it touches the railing, at 0:02. Then, in the shot on Carson, there’s both the dynamic deformations – notably the wobbly smears on his hand as it speeds past – and the elements that emphasize cool stillness, notably the Kanada light flare on Carson’s knife. The sort-of slow-motion impression created by the black frames in the middle of the movement only reinforce all that, as they emphasize the impact of each “real” frame.
These effects reappear at the end of the sequence, the climax of the fight where things suddenly get more abstract. We get a series of extreme close-ups which highlight the radiance of the lightsaber or reflections on Carson’s weapon; and then a series of black, red and white impact frames serving as background to splashing liquid effects. They are undoubtedly splashes of blood, but the pink color, the irregular timing and the unrealistic shapes and poses really make them look like a display of cool animation more than anything.
For this unexpected move towards abstraction, it’s necessary to celebrate not just Utsunomiya’s animation, but also Kôichi Mashimo’s direction. The animation and storyboarding work as a perfect duo, and not just because the fighting choreography must have been at least partly decided at the storyboarding phase. As viewers, we’re never bored but don’t lose track of what’s going on either: this is at least partly thanks to the alternance between close-ups and wide shots, which enables us to get both a general grasp of the fight and a close understanding of each fighter’s sensations. This is the storyboarding, but the animation also plays a part: for it to remain easy to process, Utsunomiya clearly decided how much information should be prioritized in each shot. In the wide shots, the characters’ faces are only approximate – making it easier to create that sense of constant motion. In the close-ups, not only is the motion itself different (relying on extreme poses rather than absolute fluidity), but the drawings are as well: although some of those details are blink-and-you-miss it, we get treated to beautiful smears, speedlines and fabric folds in many frames. The sense of detail is also anatomical – Utsunomiya’s hands, the way fingers move, skin and hair are carefully depicted, are simply beautiful.
The ability of an animation sequence to work always depends on a variety of factors: the narrative context, the storyboarding and layouts, the animation itself… Here, we get all of that in a tense and exhilarating fight that is both superbly planned and put in motion. But there’s another element, though it may be only subconscious for some of the viewers who haven’t seen the movie or aren’t familiar with 80s animation: the exceptional dynamism of this scene comes from the various technical elements I’ve highlighted here, but also from the fundamental novelty of their use. This scene is relatively early in Utsunomiya’s career (his first key animation was in 1984, 3 years before), and it already exhibits all the key elements of his style, one that takes anatomical realism as its foundation to develop a sense of constant, natural movement supported by unrealistic elements such as smears and deformations. One year before Akira, and two before Gosenzosama Banbanzai, the seeds of Utsunomiya’s aesthetic revolution were already blooming – and would keep doing so for artists who, like Mitsuo Iso and Norio Matsumoto, decided to walk in Utsunomiya’s footsteps.