Akiyuki Shinbo, the Irrational Surgeon

January 27, 2009

“[…]the predilection for stringing together unpredictable compositions in a way that some might say distracts from the story but to me enhances it.[…]the locus of excitment in [Shinbo’s] directing is the space between the shots and the compositions.[…]” – Ben at Anipages Daily


Why am I still watching Maria†Holic? Is it the comedy? Kinky premise? The guitar maid? Ever since falling in love with the brilliance that was Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, I always wanted to at some point explore Akiyuki Shinbo‘s visceral style of direction, which definitely carries over to Maria†Holic. So here it is! I first want to go over what Deleuze called “irrational cut”, and hopefully I can relate that to appreciating the genius of Akiyuki Shinbo in a different light. Feel free to skip the below paragraph if you don’t feel like too much reading.

In classical cinema, the “cut” between two shots is rational in that they are linked by an unifying element (i.e. chronological order, similar locations); a coherent chain of images. In modern cinema, the cut is often irrational in that the shots are not linked in ways that make sense. It may be a cut from a person’s face to a shot of their shoes, or any two shots where one ‘has no more an end than the other has a beginning’. These cuts are ‘spacings, intervals’, where each image is plucked from the void and falls back into it, causing a momentary ‘shock’. This puts more emphasis on immediate and visceral reaction over association of images. Neither rational nor irrational cut is superior to another, only that they are experienced differently.

and so on...

and so on...

The above is one of many examples of irrational cuts employed frequently by Shinbo. I think Deleuze explained well why his style seems to provoke reactions on more visceral side. This isn’t to say such a technique is unique to Shinbo, since we see irrational cuts all the time. Just that in my observation, he pushes it to the extreme. Some more pictorial examples:


As you can see, the difference between each picture in terms of background art, sound effects, character design is momentary and can be outrageously diverse. Another thing I observed is that in comparison to his student Okita Ouma‘s ef series, Shinbo seems to focus lot more on visceral reactions triggered through sense. His emphasis is not on hidden meanings (Maria†Holic is really, just a simple, straight-forward show). He’s interested in contrast of colours, lines, unique cinematography, the atmosphere…the ‘feel’ of each image, or sometimes in repetitions of such cuts (as seen above) and other techniques to effecitvely trigger our senses; a more intuitive, momentary and visceral approach to engaging the viewers.

The question is…does it work? Is he rationally thinking about how he is producing these irrational cuts? Is he intelligently ‘dechaining and rechaining’ these images together or is he intuitively doing this without much thoughts? Or maybe bit of both. That is for us to decide, as it will certainly appeal to us in different ways. I’d love to hear other people’s opinions on this.

Watch me if you dare

Watch me if you dare

In comparison to Zetsubou Sensei though, Maria†Holic is really tame. I’m disappointed with its ‘content’ and regressed creative energy, but for a guilty pleasure…Maria†Holic is doing okay.


15 Responses to “Akiyuki Shinbo, the Irrational Surgeon”

  1. Heh, that’s funny. Just yesterday I found out that Shinbo is directing Maria Holic and on that one fact alone I’m planning on checking it out.

    The bottom line is, I love Shinbo’s style. It’s certainly different, innovative and perhaps more sophisticated than what we’re used to seeing from made-for-TV anime. He’s like Hideaki Anno in that sense, only with a more prominent (albeit wonderfully dark) sense of humour: he uses colours, imagery and editing techniques (like the one you outlined here…thanks for pointing it out) that you don’t really see anywhere else.

    It also means that I can spot a Shinbo-ism a mile off. Does it make the storytelling more effective? I don’t know. I guess some can accuse his style of being gimmicky but I find the non-sequitur edits and kaleidoscopic colours to be refreshing and pleasant on the eye.

    I know this is turning into a tl;dr comment but if you find Maria Holic to be ‘tame’ you might want to check these out if you haven’t already: the feelgood slice-of-life show Hidamari Sketch and Le Portrait de Petit Cosette, which is much darker and atmospheric; his style is distinctive but his choices of project are really diverse!

  2. gaguri Says:

    Oh never you worry about tl;dr comments, I can read walls of text longer than Great Wall of China as long as they’re responding to something I wrote 😀

    I agree that Shinbo is really one of a kind and you can just tell his work by looking at it. I too hear lot of “crazy visuals without purpose/gimmick” criticism on his style, so I guess this post was looking at whether he really was doing it without purpose or not. I’m sure we will all arrive at our own conclusions. But if one has watched Zetsubou Sensei, it is evident that Shinbo is a very sophisticated man (though in a very nerdy way), so I would be very surprised if he’s just throwing these crazy visuals around without giving much thoughts as to how his style is engaging the audience (from artistic point of view).

    As for his other works, I have already seen Petit Cossette and LOVED it. That beautifully haunting poetry really deserves a post dedicated to it. Hidamari Sketch is also very high on my ‘to see’ list. As for his other works…doesn’t seem like they’re the kind of shows suited for me.

  3. Sasa Says:

    I knew that Shinbo did Petite Cossette, but I must say that I didn’t see much of the SZS or Hidamari-type “Shinbo-ism” in it – it’s well directed, but I got the impression that he didn’t have the possibility or the power to put his mark on his earliest works as much as he does in his current ones. (Good for us, I’d say.) Tsukuyomi Moon Phase is another example where Shinbo is… less Shinbo than today, in my opinion. (I blame the otaku-ish original series.)

  4. gaguri Says:

    I agree. Looking at Cossette and SZS, one would find it very hard to believe that they could be directed by the same person. I remember the blogger at Iwa ni Hana singing praises of Cossette, and later lamenting Shinbo’s potentials wasted on more otaku-ish shows like Zetsubou Sensei. I personally think it’s great but o well…

    In any case, I still think there is prominent “irrational cuts” in Cossette as well, just that the way they are cut and joined together differs greatly. Not sure if I did a poor job explaining that concept in this post orz…Personally I think it’s a fascinating look at the difference between classical and modern cinema.

  5. animekritik Says:

    mariaholic is like some really sweet concoction of eye candy. gotta be careful it doesn’t turn into a toothache at some point… ef also used really wacky irrational cuts (i guess from sensei’s influence, huh)

  6. TheBigN Says:

    I tend to look at them not as irrational cuts, but more of just his usage of montage. But I think that would also imply that the cuts that he makes which make up the montage would make sense. Either way, they are intriguing and aren’t a nuisance.

    While the irrational cut might not be in all of Shinbo’s works, it’s not the only thing that defines his style. With things that concretebadger mentioned in terms of bold color usage and interesting camera angles in most of his works, his style of directing and usage of cinematography sets him apart from others by his inventiveness. Sadly, it also seems to be a polarizing thing, with people either loving it or disliking it.

  7. gaguri Says:

    I agree with ef, though with Shinbo it’s lot more energetic and less…hm what’s the word…not sure about that one yet -.-

    I guess that’s the difference in the way we define the term ‘montage’. Deleuze for example, referred the way classical cinema linked images as a montage.

    And yes, Shinbo’s usage of colours, camera angels are really unique :). Great directors seem to have multiple stylistic elements, almost making their works a kind of genre itself. I however saw those techniques more as his way of piecing these irrational cuts together (i.e. how do you link them together in a more engaging way, hence irrational surgeon) rather than seeing them separately, but obviously that depends on the way we try to approach his work. And what you say is very true about his polarizing nature.

  8. always glad to see more Shinbo fan, seeing as how I am personally obsessed with the guy. You may be interested in a post I did on MH…


  9. gaguri Says:

    That’s a very sharp observation, I wouldn’t have noticed since I don’t listen to their music. The reference was most likely deliberate as Shinbo is a very sophisticated man, very self-aware as one would notice from Zetsubou Sensei. I think he enjoys showing his obscure taste, such as Kubrick’s to Miike (Audition). I don’t like the music but the way they’re using such bright colours against white background certainly is very sensual.

  10. gaguri Says:

    By chance, I came across Ben’s (Anipages Daily) sharp observation on Shinbo’s style, which just so happens to parallel mine. Here’s what he had to say:

    “[…]the predilection for stringing together unpredictable compositions in a way that some might say distracts from the story but to me enhances it.[…]the locus of excitment in directing is the space between the shots, and the compositions.[…]

  11. Kitsune Says:

    While director plays an important role, the end product is a team effort. The storyboards are usually drawn by different people, and editors, art directors, color designers differ among the works even though the director and the studio are the same.

    I enjoyed both Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei and Hidamari Sketch x 365, but I felt that Maria Holic was worse in all aspects.

  12. gaguri Says:

    Yea I agree that the end product is ultimately a team effort. In fact, Ben (at anipages daily) would often give more credit to Key animators than directors because he sees more value in their role in bringing animation alive and connecting to the viewer. Then there are voice actors, other staffs, etc etc…

    But in my observation, there are some directors whose influence is so strong it seems to simply ooze from their finished product. Take Tarantino’s for example. You can spot his film without even knowing who directed it. I guess I was more interested in trying to identify what makes his style so colourful to me 😀

    I also agree that Maria Holic is worse than Zetsubou Sensei in every aspect. This is a sad step down for Shinbo on the creative side.

  13. Isn’t your criticism of Maria Holic more because the source material doesn’t yield quite as well to Shinbo’s level of creativity as opposed to SZS where organized chaos effectively ruled the day, both in the anime and the manga? It might be a step down as you say, but to call it “sad” isn’t something that I can agree with because we’re not talking a drastically horrible difference in terms of a quality dip.

  14. gaguri Says:

    Now that I think about it, maybe it was bit unfair. It’s also true that I wouldn’t have given such a trap another look if Shinbo wasn’t the one who dressed it. Unfortunately in real life, unlike Maria Holic, there seems to be a limit to how much you can cover through make over.

  15. […] already talked about the concept of irrational cuts in this post, but perhaps Ben worded it better: predilection for stringing together unpredictable compositions […]

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