The Amazing Action Anime of Director Sunghoo Park – This Week in Anime


Director Sunghoo Park‘s latest anime is a blood-soaked action spectacle that builds off years of stellar choreography and gripping fight sequences. Find out more about his work below.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.

Terror in Resonance, Garo -Vanishing Line-, Jujutsu Kaisen Season One, and The God of High School stream on Crunchyroll. Ninja Kamui is airing on Adult Swim and streaming on Max.


Steve

Nick, please meet my beautiful wife and adorable son. They are the light of my life. My raison d’être. We live in a remote farmhouse. We grow corn. I play guitar. I have a beard. I love my beautiful wife and adorable son. I really hope they don’t get julienned by ninjas.


Nick

That’s really wonderful, Steve. I’m happy for you. By the way, I’m just asking, no reason, but how familiar are you with the John Wick tetralogy?

You know what? I might have a copy of that in the box I keep hidden in my drywall.

Alright, maybe we should at least tell people what we’re talking about before comparing its homework to Chad Stahelski‘s. In case you missed it among the unending deluge of anime, this is Ninja Kamui, the latest Toonami co-pro that, like many of its predecessors, wants to bring back the era of 90s anime.



I’m pretty sure that font just shows up on your computer after you watch Ninja Scroll.
Ninja Kamui is also the latest project from director/animator/big-fan-of-drawing-two-dudes-punching-each-other Sunghoo Park. He might not yet be as much of a household name as other anime directors, but he’s no small fry, either. Ninja Kamui has him striking out on his own with his new studio, E&H production, and this premiere is full of the scrappiness you’d expect from a bunch of artists with plenty of experience and something to prove.
Park himself is a pretty unique creator. While he doesn’t have the stylistic eccentricities of some other directors we’ve spotlighted, he’s a name I’ve been following and happy to see for a while now. So, while I’m not thrilled by this show’s first episode or premise, I am rooting for the folks behind it. I’ll also be busy wiping all the blood off my TV screen cus got damn.

Park’s been in the industry for almost two decades, working his way up from in-betweener to key animator to animation director, storyboarder, lead director, and now studio founder. There’s a hell of a lot we could dig into, but the lion’s share of his development that most people would be familiar with happened at MAPPA. I didn’t even know this before researching for this column, but it’s presumed that he did many of the most memorable cuts from Terror in Resonance.

Oh, I can absolutely see it, and even after ten years separated from that show, I can think of exactly which cut he handled. I said Park doesn’t have the stylistic obsessions of some other directors, but one thing is certain: the man loves motorcycles.





Motorcycles and fisticuffs. Though I don’t believe he’s picky about the “fist” part. Other weapons are fine, too.





You know what they say: when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like it can be solved with extremely dynamic violence!

If he has a calling card, either as an animator or director, it’s exceptionally dynamic violence. Over the years, he’s honed a cinematic style that often employs erratic camera movement, consideration of three-dimensional space, kinetic smears, and just a hell of a lot of weight infused in each blow.

It rules. It’s the kind of approach that’s hard to sum up in words – and even harder to screencap – but you can tell when he’s behind a particular sequence. The movement has a timing and energy that almost feels like you’re on a rollercoaster. It’s at its roughest and most unrestrained in his directorial debut, Garo -Vanishing Line-. Even from that show’s first episode, there’s something special to every action scene.

We had a snow day over here today, and like any normal person, I decided to watch all of Vanishing Line from start to finish. That’s still gotta be one of the most confident premieres of the past decade. It’s just oozing with zest for its ultraviolent skull-filled spectacle.


It’s my favorite of anything in Park’s oeuvre, and a lot of it comes down to how hard it goes in on everything. It’s got the action-horror vibes of the Garo tokusatsu franchise, but it isn’t afraid to be a big, doofy cartoon starring a guy literally named Sword, who’s a total meathead. And I don’t just mean that because he eats steaks that look like this:

Just your average American’s lunch. That’s also the best-looking anime steak ever. I would take one single bite of it and be unable to move for the remainder of the week, but I want to eat it all the same.

Sword only cares about three things: eating like he’s out to put the Man vs. Food guy to shame, fighting the nightstalking horrors that threaten humanity, and anime tiddy. We should all aspire to that kind of inner peace.

For all those reasons and more, I’d slot Vanishing Line at the top of my Park anime ranking, too. At the same time, it doesn’t consistently hit the highs of its impeccable premiere; its weirdly ambitious take on American decay and contemporary techno-hubris garners a lot of favor from me. Plus, it’s a solid entry in the “huge dude and tiny girl go on a character development road trip” genre I enjoy.

I especially recommend the last few episodes since even during the struggles of a two-cour TV production; it features some wild style shifts that have stuck with me ever since. Obviously, that’s not all down to Park, but it shows that he’s open to letting other artists and animators do their thing within the shows he helms.


Yeah! It’s rad that he’s still frequently contributing animation to the shows he directs. Still, he also has the connections and instincts you want from a director, especially one specializing in technically demanding action series.

Those connections are also part of why he could establish his own studio. Plus, with all the stuff going on behind the scenes at MAPPA, who could blame him for getting out while the getting’s good, even if that meant leaving behind the most successful series he’s directed so far?

If people are going to know Park, they’re most likely to know him from Jujutsu Kaisen. I have yet to sit through the Park-less second season, so I can’t really speak to what the show might have lost or gained without him. However, I did enjoy the first season quite a bit, so I can say that! Thinking back on it, it seems like a perfectly logical next step from Garo, considering JJK’s similar blend of action with horror.



I guess both series also prominently feature a big lug whose schtick is Respecting Women™️.

It makes sense, but it also has a sense of loss. One of the nice parts about Vanishing Line‘s action was that it was often very light on exposition. Most special powers either got explained beforehand or were visually straightforward enough to understand without help. JJK loves explaining every goddamn detail of its power system, and for me, that consistently drained the energy out of sequences that were otherwise rad as hell.

Momentum is a fickle yet powerful quality. I suppose we can’t blame Park for how JJK (and many battle-oriented shonen) is written, but sustaining momentum throughout an entire battle is an art, and it’s not an easy one.

Park’s approach to action is at its best when too many narrative ties do not restrain it. It works to punctuate and facilitate the plot through spectacle rather than deliver it. It’s why everyone remembers this climactic bit of Yuji and Nobara’s fight in episode 24, but not the multiple inner monologues that precede it.

Yeah, I couldn’t tell you the specifics of most JJK characters’ powers, domains, or whatever they’re called. But I sure do remember Sword slamming his talking motorcycle into bad guys (the recency of my rewatch and the likelihood of my senility notwithstanding).

I don’t know. Maybe it’s the contrarian in me recoiling from just how oversaturated JJK got after its first season, but I found the anime-original fights way more dynamic than the more faithful stuff. There’s a whole fight in JJK 0 that they added in for the movie, and it’s classic Park insanity with none of the fat.

I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if Park felt more comfortable with looser reins. He didn’t have a manga to adhere to in Vanishing Line, and maybe that’s why he’s tackling an original project now with Ninja Kamui.

The fact that he has four separate credits for the first episode would certainly suggest it. However, that’s not quite a promise of quality. He was also heavily involved in The God of High School, and that show’s story was bad enough to drag down the action.

That one I avoided because it didn’t seem like my thing. And I’ll go ahead and say that history has exonerated me. I haven’t seen anyone talk about it in years, and revisiting its first episode didn’t do anything for me, either. There are some fun scenes and images here, but the connective tissue may as well be tissue paper. Shoutout to Sophie’s hoodie getting a cameo, though.


I have very few thoughts on the story, but from an action perspective, it’s a perfect example of how, sometimes, less is more. At the start, the fighting is all hand-to-hand combat, perfectly fitting Park’s approach. The first episode has a fantastic montage of dudes beating the stuffing out of each other, and it’s infectiously fun.




Yet by the show’s end, they’ve introduced superpowers and way larger stakes, and the action scenes are positively boring despite being just as dynamic and ambitious. There’s just too much abstraction getting in the way of the impact.
That does sound pretty lame. It’s a tangential point here, but it’s challenging to top the sheer visceral impact of two people slugging it out knuckle-to-knuckle. That’s why you’ll see smart action anime/films/games/etc. strip back all the pomp and accouterment and let their climax soak in the sweat and blood of a good old-fashioned brawl. It just works. And I feel like Park is a guy who gets that.

It’s not exactly the same, but one of Vanishing Line‘s more exemplary episodes features no big horror battle; instead, Sword throws rocks at gang members and punches a bullet into a car. Nice and simple.


That’s why I’m still interested in Ninja Kamui after its first episode. The story and characters are pretty stock, and the sheer dourness of it all is a bummer, but it’s more than happy to let its bloodshed speak for itself. Which mostly entails a lot of screaming.

So far, the plot is a by-the-book revenge thriller, and in fact, it’s so close to the book that it has soaked into the book and has become one with the book. That is the whole crux of the joke I opened with. I was having a blast following the exploits of the most fridgeable family ever to grace a television screen.



The plot is the least important part of anything happening in this episode, so that’s not a knock on it. It’s just hilarious.

If you have seen any revenge thriller in the last 40 years, you know what to expect before even hitting play. It almost circles back to being brilliant with how blatantly they tell you that this guy’s wife and kid will get turned into chunky marinara to motivate him.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. By which, I mean the bad guys have to “break” this guy’s family, so he tunnel-visions on a continent-hopping quest to “fix” them. I won’t complain if the narrative gains a modicum of thematic depth in the coming weeks. Still, I also won’t complain if Ninja Kamui focuses on maintaining this level of carnage-splattered polish.

Let’s be real here. The first John Wick movie didn’t have an amazing story either (though it’s still more unique than this so far). Yet it worked because it was the right story to deliver what the movie was interested in: some of the best choreographed and coolest action sequences in modern Hollywood filmmaking. Ninja Kamui‘s not yet on that level, but it delivers some incredibly satisfying cuts.

On paper, Sunghoo Park and Chad Stahelski have very different skill sets. In practice, they both rely on their keen eye for attractive action choreography to propel their characters towards bigger and bloodier (but still grounded) extremes. If Park can deliver on the same level Stahelski has throughout the John Wick saga, then I foresee myself having a ball with Ninja Kamui.

It’s definitely in a good position for it. Toonami‘s co-productions have been trying very hard to bring that kind of 90s ultraviolence back into vogue, and for all its faults, this premiere feels like the strongest attempt so far. If it doesn’t deliver, I guess I’ll go back to praying for a Vanishing Line sequel movie.

Regarding this premiere, Ninja Kamui is an “original” anime in a very narrow sense of the word. But it is still original. Considering both my affection for Park’s body of animated work and the moxie it takes to found your own studio, I’d like to see him succeed here. There will be time in the future for him to surprise me with a sensitive drama about nuance and forgiveness. For now, let the bodies hit the floor.



Heads not required.



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