Mitsuo Iso’s Dennou Coil is regarded as one of the best and most impressively animated series of the 2000s. And this is no surprise since Iso, himself a legendary animator, brought some of the most talented artists of the industry on the series, some veterans and other younger, rising talents of the time. The sequence I’m going to analyze here was handled by one of the veterans, Takeshi Honda: a longtime collaborator of Iso at the time (although they stopped collaborating after conflicts on the series), he was character designer and animation director on the series. With Iso and, among others, Toshiyuki Inoue (who did the layouts for this scene), he is considered to be one of the major artists of the so-called “realist” school. Here, I will precisely aim to interrogate the notion of realism which, as we will see, does not primarily come out through very fluid animation, very precise drawings or photorealistic designs. Instead, Honda’s work here is a lesson in verisimilitude, as it creates extremely convincing acting through smart posing, choreography and detail. 

To provide some context, this sequence is taken from the opening scene of the episode. It is our introduction to some of the main characters of the show: Yuuko, her sister Kyouko and their cyber dog, Densuke. It is therefore an important moment on a basic narrative level: the occasion for the viewer to get acquainted with these characters and their personality.

Moreover, it’s important to make some comments on the character designs, originally by Iso and reworked by Honda. At first glance, they are very simple, especially around the face which has few features aside from the essential hair, eyes and glasses. Their very round features emphasize their youth and make them very easy to animate. It is rather in their clothes that complexity slips in: as we can see in the sequence, they are full of folds, especially for Yuuko who has a plaid skirt and a knot on her uniform. All these details add lines and make the characters more difficult to animate. As we will see, even though drawings are more dense as a result, Honda’s animation manages to make a strength out of it.

But before that, let’s talk about the first highlight of this sequence: the storyboarding (by Iso himself) and layouts (by Toshiyuki Inoue). They can both be summed up under the general term of “choreography” – that is, how the movement is distributed throughout the scene. The second shot, where all three characters move out from their seats, is already quite complex: it is low angle, requiring complex perspective work on the animator’s part. It is made all the more difficult by the fact that Densuke and Kyouko move into depth, to stand behind Yuuko. Then, we get a more simple shot, with all characters from the profile. And, after a cut to Densuke, we get another complex movement towards the camera.

In terms of acting, the focus of this scene is the difference between the two girls. The older sister is taller, thinner, and preoccupied because she’s in a hurry. The younger sister is more playful, and seems to think that everything is a game – even the seriousness of her sibling. She litterally re-enacts what her sister does, but imbues it with a childlike dynamism. All this is conveyed by the drawings and animation.

In the second shot, Yuuko almost doesn’t move: she’s just trying to get her bag. Her stretched position emphasizes the wrinkles on her clothes and her motion, a cycle, is almost rigid. On the other hand, Densuke and Kyouko move all the time, and quite differently. Kyouko first stands on her seat, then jumps and seems to bounce when she touches the ground. But the real highlight is when she turns: whereas Yuuko is drawn in a very simplified, geometrical way, Kyouko’s body is very detailed. This is especially visible in the shading, something exceptional in a show with a very subdued color palette and very little shades: for me, the highlight is the shade on the girl’s arms, neck and back. Through this, Honda wanted to convey an impression of volume, to emphasize the physical presence of this girl standing very close to the camera. This is supported by the timing: Kyouko does her jump on 2s, but the end of her movement is on 3s. In other words, the motion slows down a bit and each frame is stressed so that the viewer can really take in what’s going on.

In the next shot it is posing, rather than timing, that conveys personality. Once again, Yuuko’s movement is minimal: her upper body just rotates on her hips and she drops the bag. On the other hand, Kyouko does wider movements: she looks at the bag for a few frames, then her face suddenly starts beaming, she picks it up in a sudden motion and drops it on Densuke in a very dramatic gesture. Each extreme is very well marked, and the link between each is created by a fluid arc on 2s. All this perfectly leads the viewer’s gaze from right to left and perfectly expresses the girl’s playful character. The gag in which the girl “gives” the bag to the dog illustrates in a fun way how she’s trying to imitate her sister. Although he’s just a “cyber” dog, Densuke’s frantic and slightly smeared movement just has the kind of playfulness and energy you’d expect from an animal. The dog and the camera’s left-right movement also leads our eyes in another direction, anticipating the next shot where Yuuko is now the focus.

It is there that the relative complexity of her design becomes an expressive device. She is in a hurry, running, burdened by a series of bags on her back and side. All the stark, straight lines of the folds and creases of her clothes create a lot of visual information, too much for the viewer to immediately take in: the effect is that of disorder and unrest, as if the young girl didn’t have the time to tidy up her appearance. Here, the timing on 2s and close spacing doesn’t create fluidity and volume, but instead increases the amount of variations in the folds’ patterns and makes it even harder to appreciate. The animator is in full control, but we feel that the character isn’t.

After that, as a final element of contrast, is Kyouko’s run. Once again, her movement is based on arcs: she leans left to pick up her bag, then does a turn towards the right which gives her just the right momentum to start running. Although the movement is rather complex, it’s all in one go, with almost no extreme poses as it was the case earlier. And now, Kyouko’s expression is more focused and serious, as if she were once again trying to imitate her sister.

This sequence is extremely short, as it lasts only for 30 seconds. But it teaches us a lot about the meaning of the expression “character acting” – a surprising one since animated characters are ultimately drawing and shouldn’t “act”. As we saw here, the work of the animator is to create a sense of verisimilitude and personality: manipulate the drawings in such a way that we can feel what the characters feel. The way it is done here translates a complete mastery of every aspect of animation: complex layouts delivered by even more competent animation. It is this incredible synergy between some of the greatest geniuses in the Japanese animation industry that makes Dennou Coil so special: every single moment of this 26 episodes series is filled with the same amount of talent and personality, on both the animators and characters’ part.