From Dennou Coil To The Orbital Children: Mitsuo Iso, Animating The Future

From Dennou Coil To The Orbital Children: Mitsuo Iso, Animating The Future

Nearly 15 years since the cult hit Dennou Coil, its spiritual successor The Orbital Children has just been released. This is the story of how and why they came to be, by the hand of master craftsman and visionary director Mitsuo Iso—this is how he animates the future.


While the general public is hardly aware of Mitsuo Iso, those who know his name rightfully hold him as one of the most important figures in the history of Japanese animation. His colleagues will often point out the lasting influence he has had on anime creators when it comes to envisioning space, regulating reality, conveying weight, processing 2D effects, and the very way characters move; a disparate collection of points to praise that sums up the one of a kind, all-rounder talent that Iso has been.

Among those, his claim to fame is his full limited approach to animation, which many have tried to replicate yet hardly ever exploited to Iso’s level. Its theory is simple: sticking to anime’s tradition of drawing on the 2s and even lower drawing counts, but doing away with the concept of in-betweening, treating every single pose as key. In the hands of an artisan with an extraordinary grasp of anatomy, and perhaps more importantly, how to distill movement to its most attractive granular aspects, the result ends up being as enchanting as animation can get. Every movement is nuanced, fluctuating with clinical deliberation, but also perfectly organic by doing away with any semblance of the snapping into position you get when a different artist draws the in-betweens for keys poses that weren’t theirs. More natural than objectively more fluid animation, more authentic than reality—that is Iso’s animation at its best.

Beyond folks in the world of animation, there is another niche that has come to revere the figure of Mitsuo Iso: all fans of the cult hit series Dennou Coil, his directorial debut that will soon hit its 15th anniversary. It’s quite rare for a director with a single title to their name—and no extense episode direction experience to speak of—to be held as a prodigy to the degree Iso is, but Dennou Coil is the type of work that only becomes more impressive with time. The world Iso imagined, a mixed reality with virtual beings layered over a tactile w0rld, was both tremendously evocative and nothing short of a prophecy of what was to come to our lives. Although it didn’t meet the commercial success they hoped for, Iso won multiple Sci-Fi awards, and even scientists themselves approached him to hold public discussions. Iso has come to be known as a visionary, capable of animating what lies beyond the horizon.

With that in mind, it’s somewhat amusing to know that Mitsuo Iso doesn’t even consider works like Dennou Coil to be Sci-Fi. For starters, he finds science and storytelling to be fundamentally at odds with each other; as far as he’s concerned, stories don’t naturally exist in the world, but rather come together due to our brain’s desire for causality, making the world easier to understand by giving everything a purpose. In consequence, he sees stories as naturally suited for the unknown, because why would we need a tool to help us understand the ordinary? Iso finds himself incapable of writing everyday tales, and of following trends in the first place—chances are that those are something that has already been figured out already.

Instead, the scientific base in his works is a tool of deceit. One aspect to tether his vision to a reality close enough to the viewer that they still feel it’s within their grasp, before plunging them into the scary unknown. His research has allowed him to have in-depth discussions about the technological fundaments of his work with professionals of those fields, and at the same time, he has repeatedly said to their face that the choice of employing augmented and mixed reality in Dennou Coil was that the tech was very new at the time, thus making it less likely that people would annoy him about all the technical wrongdoings he embraced for the sake of a compelling story. In the promotional campaign leading up to his new space-themed work, Iso has repeatedly said that for as much research as was done, he always chose to depict an entertaining universe over a (scientifically) correct one. While he has proved to have exceptional foresight, Iso chooses to become a master of deception over being a prophet, and that’s what ends up giving his work a timeless appeal.

You will find praise for either of these sides of Iso—the revolutionary animator and the visionary director—as often as you encounter his name. I find analysis from those angles to be interesting in their own right, but especially with the passage of time, I’ve become convinced that they’ve perfectly converged into what he was always meant to be: Mitsuo Iso the storyteller.

Iso’s career in animation began in 1985, and within one decade, he had already become a household name within the industry. A superficial look at his career might have led to believe you that he was a pure key animator, a hired hand expertly following whatever orders were thrown his way, but the truth is that he already approached animation as a storytelling device first and foremost, expanding the regular role of an animator. His scarce credits for design work assistance and writing on shows like Evangelion fail to paint the real picture of how fundamental Iso’s input became in visualizing iconic worlds like that, contributing not just visual concepts but themes to tackle. Even his most renowned works of animation at the time have backstories that hint at his elevated role as someone who wouldn’t merely follow a storyboard; despite being busy with other projects, Iso prepared for his iconic work in Ghost in the Shell by capturing a real spider and observing its movements, to have a solid foundation to base the spider tank’s movement on.

Even before the release of Dennou Coil, Iso’s career began visibly shifting towards a more comprehensive approach to animation. Most notoriously, he wrote, storyboarded, directed, and even handled the digital effects for RahXephon #15. While that sounds like a ton of work, Iso brushed off concerns by arguing that the most time-consuming task in animation production is having to mold your work around the ideas of multiple people—so, by handling it all, he was actually making things easier on himself. The results backed him up: the quality of the episode was astonishing, and his efficiency even allowed him to cut costs and drawing count when compared to your standard episode.

It’s not just the all-encompassing vision and sheer workload that makes Iso’s work on RahXephon a major landmark, though, but also the fact that Iso handled its digital work. At the time, such roles were compartmentalized much more strictly, and animators weren’t supposed to know their way around a fledgling field like digital effects. Iso himself had only first given a try to software like Adobe After Effects a couple years prior, during the production of Blood: The Last Vampire (2000), but he immediately felt tremendous untapped potential in those tools. In the end, this relates to one of his major drives as a director: the desire to create something new, which ends up becoming inseparable from technical and technological experimentation in the craft. In more ways than one, Mitsuo Iso animates the future.

So, how did Iso channel all that energy into his first series? As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy, though the troubles weren’t what you might expect. Iso began formulating the world of Dennou Coil in 1999, and by Spring of 2000, he already had a pitch to show to potential investors—one that he eventually released to the general public. Most people would assume that his long struggle to get the project made would be a lack of funding, but things didn’t go quite that way for Iso’s first project. Now, securing funding as an innovative creator isn’t easy, but production companies would actually react positively to Iso’s proposal, showing willingness to participate in the production of the title. By 2002, Dennou Coil’s prototype had already made its way to Tokuma Shoten, the company that would lead its production committee. And yet, its eventual release took over 5 years since that point. So, why?

Rather than production companies, it was studios themselves that would hesitate to accept Iso’s pitch. Mind you, they also did find it fascinating, but were taken aback by what they saw as a daunting workload that could make their always delicate situation a whole lot worse. His pitch included then revolutionary ideas like the extensive usage of 3D layouts with the promise that he could naturally integrate them into 2D animation with his increasing mastery of digital effects, and as much as time has proved him to be right in taking that approach, at the time it understandably looked scary. Iso himself attempting to convince them that it wouldn’t actually be much trouble was met with a healthy dose of skepticism; “how am I supposed to believe that, when someone like you is the director?”. Madhouse would eventually be the ones to take the bait, although without pitching money themselves.

In retrospect, Iso turned out to be right about many things. He foresaw advancements in animation production in the same way as he did with technological advancements for society as a whole, and he was even correct about his technique being a great way to cut corners—as you’d expect from someone whose claim to fame is a technique that embraces anime’s limitations. Iso openly gloats about the fact that, despite being considered one of the most impressive pieces of animation of all time, Dennou Coil actually used way fewer drawings than its less impressive competition; 3,000 per episode on the regular and peaking around 6,000, while its peers could hit 10,000 or even 20,000 while offering forgettable experiences. At the same time, though, he admitted that he repeatedly blew past the budget despite that fundamental efficiency of the project, which should be no surprise to anyone as ambition is inherently expensive. Though it’s obviously a shame that studios have to be so mindful of their balances, and time repeatedly proves Iso right, I can’t bring myself to condemn studios that also weren’t wrong about a project like Dennou Coil being troublesome.

A compelling narrative and its very likable cast are what made Dennou Coil so immediately enjoyable for those who actually did give it a try, but looking back on it, its greatest triumph is that thorough vision of a future that Iso was able to sneak past the defense of the viewers. The augmented reality theme may have been window dressing as he said, but it was convincing and very appealing at that; so much so, that prominent people who work in those fields now at companies like Google and Niantic have expressed their love for the title. And what laid below, his actual starting point for the title, was a mysticism he finds inherent to Japanese culture: the idea of overlaying realities one could begin seeing just by putting a pair of glasses on. What he first envisioned as a series reminiscent of the likes of GeGeGe no Kitaro became an immensely charming, somewhat prophetic SciFi show for kids and parents alike.

As we’ve established, that storytelling ability to transport viewers to a believable future is completely inseparable from his desire to advance animation production techniques as well. Dennou Coil‘s earthen color palette calls back to those youkai roots, but in contrast to that, the digital postprocessing for its technomagical effects shine in ways that remain attractive. Those were always integral to Dennou Coil‘s identity, to the point that they’re all over the pilot film that Iso animated and composited himself; revolutionary at the time, and still impressive to this day, despite early digital experimentation tending to age like cheap milk. There’s no better proof of Iso’s ability to animate the future than how out of their time his works feel even decades later.

Unfortunately, for as much as we can sing praises of Dennou Coil, it’s no secret that it failed to meet its commercial goals. The perspectives of a successor were grim, as not only did that impact his ability to get projects approved, but also shook his faith in the anime industry altogether. Iso grew increasingly disenchanted with it, mostly working uncredited in other people’s works while having pitches prematurely die before they could even be made public. The fact that he has eventually pulled it off is nothing short of a miracle, and it has taken individuals literally betting their lives on it.

One such key player is avex producer Tomohiko Iwase. Iso met him 15 years ago when he was a newbie assistant producer on Dennou Coil, and never expected him to stick around in this industry in the long run—let alone to remain friends and close collaborators with him for a decade and a half. Iwase is among the people who immediately became enamored with Iso’s vision of the future, hence why he spent years meeting him to try to get a project off the ground. None of those attempts flourished, but the two look at them as the foundations in which The Orbital Children rests.

A curious turning point in this story was the release of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity in 2013. The two of them enjoyed the film, and beyond its entertainment value, something about its approach to the idea of space felt revelatory to Iso. A space-themed work was already on his mind for a simple reason: no one was making them anymore in the anime industry, having the gall to tell him that it was an antiquated theme—that thing has been around us for billions of years, so who are we to tell him that it hasfallen out of fashion! That said, Iso would agree that there was no point to revisit an old-school concept and do what others have done already, so Gravity helped him establish his goal: envision a 21st-century space, as opposed to the 20th-century space of previous works.

In Iso’s mind, that 20th-century space is characterized by heavy machinery, carefully depicted with its mechanical glory in the works of the time. The metallic, industrial structures embody that era’s relationship with space, hence why it’s also inseparable from the wars and conflicts of the 20th century. Its themes and execution are grand, stiff, momentous.

In contrast to that, he began formulating his vision of a 21st-century space. Once again, he cherrypicked the right scientific advancements and up-and-coming societal changes to animate the future. One where space travel is a more casual activity, and thus, one where space itself is also more casual; gone are the metallic structures, replaced by inflatable cloth space stations. Sleek wearable tech and loose suits in place of the heavy, bulky accessories of the past. The balance of believability is kept by making the setting relatively within our grasp as a low-orbit station, making it slightly daunting but not enough that there is a disconnect between the characters’ mindset and ours. Iso’s innovative techniques meet his fresh ideas once again, and just as importantly, his solid scientific basis meets his mastery of deceit. That’s the delicate balance that sustains his paradoxical view of SciFi storytelling, and how he convinces us that the futures he envisions are authentic.

Besides his innate contrarianism, there’s another reason why Iso chose to make a space series precisely now. Space embodies risk and the unknown, something that he believes that Japanese society has become too adverse to, as natural as seeking security is. After a 20th century where they became too invested in a luxurious technological future that never came, the pendulum swung too hard in the opposite direction, making everyone disregard the future—including tech that embodies it—to focus exclusively on the present, which Iso feels closes important doors to the younger generation. In making a series about space starring children, Iso wants to lead a change that he feels is inevitable regardless.

It’s easy to take Iso’s vision and, applied literally to our current times, find it somewhat naive. After all, he’s convinced that space travel will become accessible to everyone, when for now it has only become a new toy for billionaires who want to put public stunts, if anything making it less accessible than before. Once you factor in the climate crisis, space travel sounds downright foolish. But I don’t find that to be the point, in the same way that Dennou Coil wasn’t wearable tech propaganda. Iso’s gift is in envisioning attractive worlds that don’t quite exist yet, but that he fools us into believing that they’re well within our grasp, hopefully encouraging everyone to move forward more decisively. This is why The Orbital Children’s tagline is “You can’t escape the future”, and it’s animating the future where Mitsuo Iso excels more than anyone else to ever do it.


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Arturo
Arturo
3 months ago

Stunningly great read and pretty good industry insights! I’m a big fan of Mitsuo Iso’s work, specially Dennou Coil. And I’m incredibly happy and excited that after 15 years, he’s finally released another original work. Been waiting for ages since the announcement haha. I really hope it gets the recognition it deserves.

Gonzo
Gonzo
3 months ago

I really enjoyed Dennou Coil and always wondered why no one around me knew about this anime. Good read with great insights into Iso’s vision of animation. Thanks!

Mendel
Mendel
3 months ago

Thank you for providing me with the explanation why Orbital Children feels like a commercialized, westernized successor of Den-noh Coil. (And thanks to netflix for silently offering the older work alongside the new one.) It’s immediately obvious that OC shares the graphical metaphors for the cyberspace itself: the glitches and the S-structure live in the same worlds. OC also localizes the hardware required for this: its cybernetic reality is created by ubiquitious processors embedded everywhere, and physical drones have replaced virtual pets—and that enabled switching the realistic AR-glasses for impossible wrist-holos that only need to provide the character with a… Read more »

gestureflow
gestureflow
3 months ago

Great write-up. Always wanted insight on the legend.

Also, is there a reason why this show has no posts on Sakugabooru?

/XX/
/XX/
3 months ago

>The perspectives of a successor were grim, as not only did that impact his ability to get projects approved, but also shook his faith in the anime industry altogether. Iso grew increasingly disenchanted with it, mostly working uncredited in other people’s works while having pitches prematurely die before they could even be made public. In regards to the above, I’d like to see your take on how much being Mitsuo Iso difficult to work with may have hindered his prospects within the industry across the board, after the fact… including the (much talked about) distancing between him and a Takeshi… Read more »

Last edited 3 months ago by /XX/
Abhinav mishra
Abhinav mishra
2 months ago

Incredibly well written article