If you have an appreciation of animation, Mob Psycho will grab your attention and mercilessly pound it into absolute submission. I’m still in intensive care, but they’re letting me write this post under heavy sedation and monitoring. If you don’t appreciate animation you might see it as an anime with a ‘weird art style’ that’s still somehow awesome. But whatever your background, I think we can all agree that Mob Psycho 100 has a certain kick to it that perhaps no other anime does, and the force behind that kick comes from its animation production.
As intended, the writing is dry, the characters unpalatable and the story, at least in this early stage, no more than a premise for shounen gags. Don’t expect to be deeply moved or intellectually engaged by this series; it knows exactly what genre it is and throws everything at being the very beast shounen comedy it can be. Being descendant from the same original creator, Mob Psycho definitely has a likeness to the previously successful One Punch Man. The shounen topic, the style of comedy and the comic faces are closely aligned. Both series also have great animation, but Mob Psycho is a very different beast in this arena.
Unlike One Punch man, the show is relentlessly kinetic. Ever since the early days of TV-anime, most anime have a status quo animation style and all the creative energy and gusto would be thrown into the ‘money shots’. One Punch man was rightly lauded for its animation quality, but it still followed that pattern, that praise almost entirely referring to its frequent but fleeting action sequences. Sure, some of Mob Psycho’s greatest moments of animation come from the scenes where Mob uses his telekenetic powers, but the difference in energy is less clear-cut.
All throughout, this episode of Mob Psycho is stylistically restless, bursting at the seems with new ideas, and raw, unfiltered animation of totally different faculties. There’s some clear strains of Kanada-esque, or even Imaishi-school limited animation, some rich set-piece movement in the vein of Hironori Tanaka, web-gen digitally drawn effect work reminiscent of Shingo Yamashita.
The crumpled, hyper-emotional gag expressions remind me of the drawings from classic comedy anime GTO or, more recently, Azazel-san.
There’s an abundance of ambitious and unfiltered key animation work on display. There’s even some animation done using oil-painting on glass.
So, in this episode at least, there’s no status-quo – it’s a complete piece of animation. But there is a stylistic presence that stitches it all together, and that is of chief animation director Yoshimichi Kameda.
Mob Psycho is yet another break-out career moment for the ascendant Kameda, the man who is the embodiment of the primal ‘charisma animator’. I have been following him intently ever since his arresting action sequences as a young key animator in Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, his rough, charcoaly lines, coarse shading and unique effects proving to be the most iconic and memorable animation from the series. False prophets have come and gone, and countless animators have emulated his style, but Kameda is the only one out there that has Yoshinori Kanada’s particular brand of charisma – the drive to push the boundaries, to constantly exceed and upend expectations and with free and flamboyant animation. Like Kanada, his animation has the power to drive the production, not the other way around.
Kameda always goes over the top. He always gives you a bit more than you ask for (Laughs). If you imply that you want him to do his absolute best, to give it 100%, he’ll go away and return with 150%. I think he works best when you ask him to operate at around 80% capacity. –director Tachikawa
That charisma approach is at the beating heart of Mob Psycho, and his pioneering sumi-e brush aesthetic is clearly in play throughout the episode.
Animation aside, director Yuzuru Tachikawa’s storyboard and layout work give this episode a fast-cut pace and rich composition that means the character cels and the background art don’t feel starkly separate. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with having cels stand-out, but it’s refreshing to see an anime that follows a different path.
The dynamic, near-formless animation created under Kameda combined with Tachikawa’s layouts mean that Mob Psycho has few obvious traces of a standard TV animation production. It’s less of an anime and more of a manga that’s come to life.
Mitsuo Iso is my favourite animator – that’s an unequivocal fact. Regrettably, it hasn’t been a good decade to be a fan of Iso. Since his work as director on the commercially unsuccessful Denno Coil, he has been an elusive, enigmatic figure, making only scant appearances uncredited here and there. Recently though, we’ve had good news from abroad: Mitsuo Iso has been found alive and well and a French company has dragged him into working on a new animated feature film of theirs, Les Pirates de la Réunion, le réveil des dodos! If you saw that news article pop up on your crunchyroll or ANN feed and didn’t know what all the fuss was about, then this post is for you.
To celebrate the return of the chosen one, I thought I’d gush all over my keyboard for a couple of hours so that the world can at least know the depths of my love for this man. Rather than a detailed break-down of his style and work, it’s more of an indulgent propaganda piece.
Iso is a testament to the fact that, contrary to the frothing gibberish that many western animation purists purport, more frames does not equal better animation. Anyone out there who flatly believes that the more fluid animation is, the better it is, or the more realistic it is, needs to stop and listen to the message Iso conveys through his work.
Throughout his long and industrious career Iso has delved deeper into understanding expressing movement than any other major animator I have seen, which has given him the ability to craft animation in a way no one else in the world can, and that’s no hyperbole. The way in which he shows movement that feels both realistic and organic yet intrinsically ‘animation’ is so perfect and so difficult to break down technically that it’s nothing short of magical. There’s no doubt he has a gift that can’t be learned. When his animation craft is woven into a climactic moment of the right anime, it has the ability to take your breath away.
In my early days of anime fandom, when I didn’t even know what an animation director was, one such scene floored me: Asuka fighting the mass production Evas in the End of Evangelion movie. I actually watched it again recently and that only confirmed its uncontested status as my favourite sequence of animation. I suggest everyone give it another watch (spoiler alert):
It’s not my favourite sequence because it’s the most technically impressive, because it has the best drawing quality or the most realistic movement – I could reel off plenty of examples that best it in any one category. It’s not one quality I can put my finger on but there’s something intangible and transcendent in there.
Perhaps it’s the sense of weight and gravity of the Evas colliding and swinging their joints, the visceral power of their lunges and the way they reel back from the sheer forces involved in the battle. Maybe it’s the way, even though Evangelion is a giant ‘mecha’ its every movement evokes the cathartic willpower of Asuka’s last few breaths – it’s a desperate, violent scramble for survival on a grander scale. Or maybe it’s the fact that every detail is accounted for – the speed at which debris fall, the way leaves ripped from trees are whisked around by momentum, the uniquely real spurting and splattering of blood or the trailing wisps of smoke from the clashing swords. It’s not one of these things, it’s all of them and more. It’s Mitsuo Iso. It doesn’t matter how much money or how many animators you could throw at a movie, we have one man to thank for the animation in this sequence and it could never be done without him. Never.
Every Frame is Key
With the “full-limited” style he developed and frequently used he shuns the traditional approach of having the key animator drawing the key poses in a cut and having in-betweeners draw the frames between. Instead, he exerts complete control over his cuts, doing every drawing himself. But there’s more to it than that, he doesn’t just do away with in-between animators, he does away with the whole concept of in-between frames – by treating every drawing as key. This means he is never drawing just to get from one pose to the next, but every frame takes the movement forward in a totally organic way. This avoids any semblance of the old animation problem of characters looking as though they are awkwardly snapping into poses and revolutionises our understanding of what it means for animation to be realistic.
An army of in-betweeners could make animation that moved at real-life speeds of 60 frames per second plus, but that wouldn’t make it any more realistic if the movement wasn’t happening in a realistic way. By the same token, if the characters are moving in a realistic manner, they don’t NEED to move at 60fps for it to feel entirely real and authentic. And even if a key animator had a prodigious grasp of anatomy and movement, if the movement is being planned out by only a portion of the frame total it will never feel truly real.
Mitsuo Iso’s animation is limited in the sense that he doesn’t draw 24 frames per second, but with a lot less drawings (limited animation) he is able to give the same impression as if it were full. He does this by having a masterful understanding of how things move at their very core. There is absolutely no redundant movement in his animation; each frame is a discrete evolution in the broader motion going on. As a result, things can constantly be accelerating, decelerating or changing course which gives his motion a sense of vitality, of being alive. That’s why his animation gives the impression of realism without moving with the same framerate.
Master of Motion
But it’s not enough to make things be constantly moving arbitrarily (as many other animators are guilty of); Mitsuo Iso also has a genius understanding of how things should move. His animation doesn’t come from repeated textbook learning but from some deeply innate knowledge of how to translate what he observes in real life into a sequence of drawings. This is where the magic of Iso comes into play.
When he animated that End of Evangelion scene, the Evas moved with weight the of giant robots and also the will of humans.
In the ghost in the shell sequence, the spider tanked crept around like an arachnid yet also moved with a robotic, mechanised purpose.
And don’t worry, he’s not just a mecha animator! His portrayal of every-day human movement is so natural it can be profound such as the crying scene in the Digimon movie, or the running in Umi ga Kikoeru.
To top it off, he is one of the best effects animators out there, portraying explosions, smoke and water with a kind of enigmatic authenticity that is hard to match. His climactic scene in FLCL or his explosion in Blood+ are good examples of this.
At the end of the day, Mitsuo Iso’s realism doesn’t mimic real life it recreates it. Instead of a dull straight-forward reproduction of real movement, he harnesses the power and potential of animation to create evocative sequences that merely use a grounding in reality to further enhance their impact and visceral beauty.
A True Creator
Like many other accomplished animators before him, Mitsuo Iso began to spread his wings to soar above the whole creative process, with a resounding effort at pretty much everything with the renowned Raxephon episode 15 where he handled production, writing, storyboard, 2D digital effects and key animation – an unheard of feat for TV anime. He bought along the same philosophy that informed his key animation career and wanted to show that you can make a high-quality product within the confines of limited budget and schedule by cutting out the challenge of trying to interpret and execute another person’s vision. This is taking his demolishing of in-between frames to a higher level. He proved his point with an a moody, cinematic and completely satisfying episode. He also proved that he was cut out for creating stories, not just telling other people’s stories with his animation.
This change in tack for his craft led him to being in charge of his very first major project: Denno Coil. Iso came up with this one from the ground up, as creator, director and screenwriter. A fascinating blend of neighborhood-roaming childhood coming-of-age and near-future augmented-reality science fiction, Denno Coil was unique, thoroughly entertaining and richly animated. Unfortunately it was not a resounding success, failing to make an impact or garner strong sales despite a generous TV time-slot. Although mostly hearsay it also indicated that Iso may not be suited to the director’s chair, his perfectionism and instinct-driven style poorly matched to entrusting animators under him. This may have caused a falling out with the previous brother-in-arms, Takeshi Honda, who was the chief animator for the series.
It is also probably the reason he vanished into a distant myth ever since. However, with the news that he is coming back with a feature film, all heads should be turned as no one can doubt the capacity of Iso to create something amazing.
Last night I watched an episode of anime the visceral impact of which took the wind out of me and left me lost for words. I had to just watch the credits roll, silent and still as my spiraling thoughts slowly came back to me. After a night’s rest, I’m ready to get it off my chest: Re:Zero episode 15 was amazing!
Re:Zero has been a consistent surprise to me since it began last season. The product of famous action animator-just-turned-director Gorou Sessha and prolific yet forgettable writer Masahiro Yokotani, Re:Zero is a light-novel adaptation with a very light-novel premise: average guy ends up in a fantasy world surrounded by cute girls and a special power (the ability to restart his day when he dies). Like any healthy grown man, I was skeptical at first. But, ever since its first episode cut short the slow-burning cute and humorous antics by brutally eviscerating all the main characters it has chipped away at all of my doubts before finally obliterating them this week.
This episode kicks the latest arc of the show into gear, pitting our hero Subaru and his doting side-kick Rem against a disturbed cult and a giant ice-bringing monster who is probably the Jealous Witch herself. It’s easily the most suspenseful episode of the show, as, more than ever before, there’s a looming sense of impending doom and a true malevolent villain. On top of that, the emotion is as strong as ever, as Rem’s blooming love for Subaru and her hatred of the cult adds tragedy and yearning to the shocking events that unfold.
Re:Zero has been carefully building its characters from the start to fully capitalise on their foils, passion and drive in moments like this. It’s an anime that many other could learn from in that it has the confidence to slow down and give itself breathing space. There’s time for back-story, there’s time for Rem and Subaru to go shopping together or just talk about their day. Where other light novel series would keep Rem and Ram as cute fanservice maids, Re:Zero has let us witness them grow well beyond their archetype. Other light novel series would have their male protagonist unwavering in his resolve and personality, but Re:Zero gave Subaru a whole episode to wallow in self-pity after ruining his friendship with the heroine. And when this show needs to fire a punch it throws all the weight of its character development behind it and lands a truly crushing blow.
This week was one massive swing to the gut, a gripping ride of suspense, sorrow, fear, rage and an almost suffocating feeling of hapless despair. It hit me in a place that anime usually doesn’t even try to. I’ve seen more violent anime before, but I don’t recall many anime being so brutal to a character as sweet and cherished as Rem or going to such lengths to crush the soul of its main character.
The potency of this episode was further honed by some impressive animation work. The four main animators responsible for the episode are (listed in order of the amount of animation they contributed):
These guys are all credited with both animation direction and key animation, meaning they had a great deal of responsibility and creative control over their sequences. While most of the episode was well executed, the most interesting animation-wise by far was the long scene in the cave with Subaru chained up and tormented by the maniacal cult leader.
This sequence was handled by Kazuhisa Nakamura, which is why he did the most animation on the episode. A new animation director for the show, and someone who is new to me, Nakamura displayed a strong understanding of how animation can be used to deliver atmosphere and impact.
Now I have seen my share of creepy cult anime villains waving their arms around and talking in an insane voice, but the way Nakamura crafted his movements is what made him creepy and unsettling rather than just comical. Nakamura had him cut unpredictably from jerky, nervous contortions into super-smooth, confident movements really gave credence to his vocal lunacy.
Similarly, Rem’s fury as she entered the cave and Subaru’s desperate rage as he watched her die was made so intense by the raw, visceral movements and drawings.
It’s hard to imagine 3DCG or even live-action conveying this scene with such fierce emotional power.
The closing shot of the episode was the final kick to an audience already down, a display of the monstrous power and evil Subaru is now helpless against. The staff involved knew they had made something special and gave it the ED-less credit roll, a well-earned cinematic send-off.
Over the last couple of years, I can see that my focus on this blog has pivoted from general anime enthusiasm toward celebrating a very particular strain of anime with a gushing, obsessive level of discussion. The kind of anime I’m talking about here isn’t just ‘good anime’, an anime that ticks all the boxes of entertainment, or even anime that I think are amazingly produced. Rather, it’s that anime that comes along once in a while and strikes a chord within me in some intangible and unexpected way. There was Love Lab with its effervescent characterful animation, Ping Pong with its wobbly, skewed aesthetic and Yozakura Quartet that blew me away with its fresh, vivacious webgen production, and of course many more that I haven’t been able to talk about yet. But the thing I’ve found with each of them is that their resonating charm was fuelled by the very personal creative impulses, ambitions and talents of the people behind them. The latest series to move me in this way was Erased, or Boku Dake ga Inai Machi.
Boku ga Inai Machi (or Erased) is an anime adaptation of a popular seinen manga series by Kei Sanbe, and seems to have been met with universal praise from viewers around the world. The author takes the basic ingredients of crime-thriller and childhood coming-of-age drama, throws in a hint of time travel and seamlessly blends them together into a riveting, and suspenseful story. After being framed for murder the protagonist, Satoru, is unwittingly thrown back in time to his childhood where he must reach out to those around him and muster his personal resolve to try and outwit a cunning and cruel serial killer. Much has been written about the show’s riveting story but most critics seem unable to put their finger on why they appreciated the production side of things. I am going to try put my finger on it! Looking into it, I soon found that, counter to the case in many anime, its excellence is largely due to the man in the proverbial director’s chair, Ito Tomohiko.
Director Ito has already proven himself worthy as a producer with his directorial work on Sword Art Online and Silver Spoon at A-1 Productions. An antithesis to studios like Trigger or Kyoto Animation, A-1 Pictures’ core, permanent staff are just a small group of producers and digital effect/CG artists – their animators are employed on a casual as-need basis. This is why there is no A-1 Pictures ‘look’ beyond their post-production finish standards and CG work. As such, it falls to the director to assemble the key creative team that will drive the style and quality of the production, and Ito was easily up to the task. But while these previous outings were polished and successful, Erased is perhaps the first time we’ve seen Ito rise well above the perfunctory and flex his creative muscles as director.
One reason for this might be that he has both a history and an interest in the thriller genre, and originally started in the industry at Madhouse working on serious anime with a suspenseful edge such as Monster and Death Note. Since moving on from Madhouse and being in charge of more light-hearted quintessentially ‘anime’ works he has expressed a desire to sink his teeth into something more in this vein. When one of his colleagues showed him the Erased manga years ago it obviously resonated with him as he set to work rallying Aniplex (A-1 Picture’s parent company) directly to launch an anime adaptation with him as director.
As a fan of thrillers, he has clearly relished the role. He made a conscious effort to ramp up the feeling of suspense and excitement in the show by drawing inspiration from Hollywood thrillers rather than following the approach of Japanese TV thrillers or similar anime. For example, while the show is set in real parts of Hokkaido, the stark and sombre way they portrayed their locations was strongly influenced by the Danish crime drama series The Killing, set in Copenhagen. Ito has said that the butterfly that appears throughout the show whenever Satoru jumps through time is an homage to another thriller work (but won’t say which one! – he did say it’s not Butterfly Effect though). Overall, there was a push to make Erased feel exciting and cinematic in a Hollywood thriller kind of way.
This push was made possible by Ito’s industrious style of directing, as someone who really throws himself at every production. When he took on Silver Spoon he visited agricultural schools and ate a lot of food to understand the setting of the series. For Sword Art Online, he spent a solid week going to net cafes after work and staying up late into the night playing MMORPGs to get a sense of how people interacted in online games. For the later series of Sword Art, to help portray realistic gun battles he went shooting. Let’s hope no practical experience was needed in portraying the dark kidnappings of Erased! But this all goes to show that Ito truly pursues every avenue to excel, tinkering with many realms of production that many directors are happy to overlook. This may be truer in the case of Erased than ever before.
One thing I noticed pretty quickly when watching the show is that it didn’t sound like just another run-of-the-mill anime; the voice acting felt refreshing and somehow more natural. Rather than the crisp, familiar voices of the industry staples, the protagonist was handled by film actors, both for his young and old versions. To make the two voices feel like they really belonged to the same character, all of young Satoru’s lines were read by his older counterpart, so that his adult inflections and tones could be better reflected. Going even further, in order to increase the natural, conversational feel of the dialogue there was a conscious decision to ensure that the voice actors were together to record their lines in, rather than allowing them to record their lines independently (a common occurrence in the industry for in-demand seiyuu). The sound effects too, were consciously used to add suspense, drawing from western fields and the way they use bangs, rumbles or other noises to surprise and unsettle the viewer.
However, Ito’s stamp leaves its biggest imprint on the series’ visual design. Rather than being forged from the fires of animation like many notable directors, Ito hails from a storyboarding and production setting background, and that enables him to expertly and holistically control the look of the show from the ground up. He put a huge creative signature on the show by going against the grain of the normal adaptation storyboarding process, instructing his storyboarders not to replicate panels from the manga but to envision how the layouts and scenes can evoke a cinematic feel that would keep people’s attention hooked. He used a number of approaches to try and achieve this.
Attention was paid to the use of visual effects to keep the series from feeling flat – flicking to shots of the spinning wheel of film and other visually compelling shots were used to spice up the flow.
Perhaps his most apparent imprints on the look of the series is his instruction to staff to pay close attention to backlighting – how light from outside windows, streetlights, etc can cast visual depth into shots. This may be something he picked up an appreciation for when working on Guilty Crown, which used lighting to superb effect. The general aesthetic of the show bows to this edict wherever possible and gives it a strong cinematic flavour. At times the use of light and shadow is used to dramatically ramp up the tension, other times it simply adds to the realistic feel the show aims for by ensuring that the lighting of each scene is carefully rendered as it would be in real life – no scenes are simply bright for the sake of presenting the characters and many occur only under the light cast from a TV or nearby street lamps. The characters being enclosed by darkness in these night scenes gives a sense of dread and unease.
Ito didn’t just ensure that the series felt realistic and visually engaging. As a storyboarder inspired to join the industry after seeing Evangelion, it certainly looks as though he carried the influence of Hideki Anno’s work throughout his career and it’s no less apparent here. Ito uses the space between characters as well as stark lighting to symbolic effect, treating layouts more as paintings and works of art than stages for the characters. By that I don’t just mean he just tries to make them pretty, but he crafts them to convey visual metaphor and evoke particular emotions. He’ll do things like place two characters on either side of a clear division between light and shadow, or use perspective and composition to emphasise which character is in control or more powerful. Similarly, he’ll use open spaces to depict emotional distance, and occasionally jarringly centred shots to show urgency or tension. This is something that Evangelion in particular is famous for.
Erased (Ito Tomohiko Storyboarded):
Evangelion (Hideaki Anno Storyboarded):
As a result, the series has a very conscious use of layout and composition to help underpin the emotion of the scenes. The childhood scenes pull the camera back so that characters appear small, placing them in large, open spaces. This, combined with the very deliberate effort to frame many shots as though the children are being watched, gives a real sense of helplessness and danger.
His repertoire is taken a step further in Erased, introducing a very strong focus on the use of colours in shots to symbolise emotions. All throughout the series, he paints with reds and blues at every possible opportunity to reinforce the mood of the scene.
Early in the series, it becomes clear that red is associated with danger and isolation while blue is associated with safety and family as a kind of dichotomy between Satoru with a loving mother and the lonely victim Kayo whose only family are relentlessly abusive. As the series develops I think the director used this association to deliver extra suspense and tension in many of his scenes. Maybe even subconsciously, I suspect much of Erased audience felt a wave of dread when the background changed to red in the sequence with Satoru in the car with the killer because this colour association had been woven through the show up until that point. Of course, none of this is brand new in the realm of visual storytelling, but Ito ensures it is delivered with just enough nuance that you feel its impact without necessarily noticing it on screen.
Ito’s deft handling of storyboarding, layout and general direction may have developed while working under super-director Mamoru Hosoda, having served as assistant director on The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars. Given his Eva influences it’s no surprise that his work contains the creative DNA of Kunihiko Ikuhara and Osamu Dezaki. Like Hosoda, Ito takes a naturalistic approach to symbolic framing, preferring to place his characters in a real space, rather than the surreal and arbitrary stages of Ikuhara and Dezaki. His use of framing seems to parallel some Anno’s cinematic inspirations, such as the use of minimalist camera work.
Layouts from Ito’s Kekkai Sensen 11:
Hideaki Anno style:
His background may not be in genga, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate animation. Like Sword Art Online before it, Erased has its fair share of charismatic animation. Again, it may be his time under Hosoda that gave him some of this appreciation, or at least the production know-how to getting this animation created. He certainly picked the right chief animation director for SAO, and Keigo Sasaki is a similarly good fit for Erased, bringing consistent, polished art and moments of realistic, yet emotive character animation. The animation highlight of the series was undoubtedly episode 3, spearheaded by Takahiro Shikama.
Shikama was the director, storyboarder and animation director for that episode and he really shines, delivering what is, in my view, the best episode of the series. It’s certainly the episode that first made me feel like Erased was something special. His storyboarding work applies Ito’s direction to superb effect creating an episode that is brimming with dramatic tension at every step. He harnesses a number of animators to delivery some powerful scenes of animation such as the ice-skating race (handled by Shikama himself) and the romantic scene at the end of Satoru and Kayo being surrounded by running foxes (handled by Takahito Sakazume). Takahiro Shikama was a major player in the production of Sword Art Online, being the main action animation director for the first season. But this is the first time he has had the opportunity to show his mettle at the director level. I hope he gets the opportunity more in the future!
One area it’s clear that director Ito is not as confident in is the writing. Erased requires delicate portrayals of family life and domestic abuse, whereas Ito had trouble even trying to portray intimate moments between Asuna and Kirito (as apparently all the staff were single). So it’s very fortunate that he found a great screenwriter in Taku Kishimoto.
More than just a thriller, Erased scratches beneath the surface of events and evokes profound human drama in its storytelling. From the harrowed Hinazuki trapped in a miserable life of abuse at the hands of her mother, to the protagonist’s encountering true feeling and meaning his life through reliving his past, Erased is steeped in emotion. Taku Kishimoto is in charge of the story for the series and almost certainly is to thank for this, having written the entire script for the anime adaptation of Usagi Drop and Silver Spoon (also under director Ito). Erased is an-edge-of-your seat thriller made all the more intense because you feel so much for those involved that every dangerous development is like a kick in the gut; the killer isn’t just after a random kid, they’re after Hinazuki.
Interestingly, I don’t think the episodes that Ito storyboarded himself were the strongest. While he has a history of storyboarding work, on review, I don’t see him as being particularly talented at it (except maybe for Kekkai Sensen episode 11). Ito isn’t a great anime director because he is a great artist but, more in the vein of Kenji Kamiyama or Mamoru Oshii, it’s because he is full of high-level ideas and has the ability to harness the creative talents of those under him to weave those ideas through every level and every facet of his productions. He doesn’t fall into the trap of many anime directors, of focusing on just he animation, or just the story, but he is able to take a step back and see the whole picture, how every part of an anime production can be utilised in symphony to render a vision. I see real potential for Ito to fall into the hall of great anime director’s and avidly await his first opportunity to direct an original series.
3 months ago I started writing a blog entry on one of my favourite ‘under-appreciated’ anime from the last few years, Yozakura Quartet: Hana no Uta (NOT to be confused with the mind-numbingly dreadful original Yozakura Quartet TV anime adaptation!). Other than singing its praises, I wanted to hit home the fact that the series was a giant step forward for a fascinating new generation of animators and a landmark series in the use of digital animation in commercial anime production.
But, as I was putting it together, it quickly became apparent that this little aside was becoming not as little as I thought, and that it had actually become a post unto itself! So now, after my research into the topic uncovered an interesting story to be told, I present to you a dive into web-generation animators, their use of digital animation and how one especially famous animator, Ryo-chimo, has paved the way for them to take the anime world by storm in recent years!
Before we delve any further, I need to get two terms that are often batted about in the Japanese animation fandom straight with you:
The ‘web-generation’ (web-gen) rabble are termed so because they are a pioneering generation who grew up with the advent of the internet and the rapid improvement of tools and software for digital drawing. This put them in a position where they could easily hone their skills as a hobby using Flash and drawing tablets, creating gif animation and putting their talent on display on websites and blogs for the world (and future employers looking to scout them) to see. ‘Gif-animators’ more specifically refers to those who created and shared digital gifs as the means of learning animation. These web-gen guys would often get scouted and pulled onto mainstream animation projects by some of the more avant-garde directors looking for new talent to spice up their projects with some fresh faces. This self-made kind of career is in stark contrast to the traditional avenues for entering the Japanese anime industry.
The fact that they didn’t originate from an animation school or through the rigorous training of a particular studio but learnt themselves and got where they were by showing off their individual talents makes these guys an interesting presence in the industry. Without learning animation through guided training or experience as a key-animator they rapidly develop their own styles from scratch or by adopting and playing with the styles of other animators they follow ( something which has been made far easier for them to consume by the flood of animators now running blogs and using twitter). The result is often that they revel in a flashy, idiosyncratic style yet are not as proficient in the fundamentals of animation – being able to draw convincing movement of their subjects in line with the models/designs of the production.
The latter is a common concern among many industry veterans, but the former is a boon to anime as these guys are often called in for certain scenes or episodes to make them crazy and stand-out-ish. When these webgen staff are herded together on the right project with the right oversight they are a force to be reckoned with, and that’s exactly what happened on Yozakura Quartet, the series that really made me notice the potential of these new faces. We’ll look at a few such anime throughout this post.
There are a few cliques of these guys active these days, like those revolving around producer Shouta Umehara at Dougakobo who worked on Yuruyuri, Love Lab and the Mikakunin PV, or the associates of Tatsuya Yoshihara, responsible for some of the more interesting animation from Muromi-san, Barakamon and, most recently, Yoru no Yatterman.
But the group of people I want to hone in on with this post is the old-guard, the forerunners who heralded the dawn of the web-generation. Kenichi Kutsuna, Ryo-chimo and Shingo Yamashita were the first wave to go pro from their hobby animations and gifs, scouted by animators such as Satoru Utsunomiya or directors like Osamu Kobayashi. These guys have really pursued and pushed the cause of harnessing digital animation technique in their creations. They have set the ball rolling by pioneering the use of digital animation work in TV anime such as Birdy the Mighty Decode and Yozakura Quartet Hana no Uta.
I’ve mentioned digital animation a few times so far, and it’s because drawing digitally is inexorably linked to the new kind of movement and visual style that these web-gen guys are bringing into play across the industry.
Put simply, digital animation is animation created from a series of digital drawings drawn on a tablet in a computer software environment, usually Flash. The important thing to stress is that the role of Flash here is simply to replace pencil and paper as the tool to draw the frames that will ultimately be composed into the final animation product – it’s used as a drawing tool NOT an animation tool. There is no automatic in-betweening, it’s not used to colour the frames and it’s not used to actually render the finished animation; the digital animation is a series of discrete drawings. When people talk about flash animation in the west they think of auto in-betweened stuff used in children’s cartoons, which have an awkwardly smooth and dull kind of motion, but in Japan the animator still creates the movement totally by hand with drawings, and thank god for that!
Examples of digital drawings by Shingo Yamashita:
In fact, very often the digital drawings are treated the same as regular key drawings (called ‘genga’) – they are printed and scanned to be coloured and finally composited into the end product in a software package called RETAS. In-betweening and animation direction can work as normal, with the printed key-frames being sent to the other parties to work on, or the flash file being shared with them if they too are working digitally.
Digital animation drawing
Pencil animation drawing
The only time I’ve heard of flash being used to render the animation right through was in the recent series Ping Pong, in which Masaaki Yuasa’s Science Saru production team seem to have developed a technique to use Flash’s auto-in-between tools to produce certain movements that don’t look totally vapid (but they’re certainly a little unusual):
Perks of Digital Animation
With all that said, there definitely are differences between analog and digital animation, mainly stemming from the fact that in flash you can very efficiently plan out, modify and test the timing of your animation cuts, because the timeline is shown right on the screen. This makes it much easier to plan out the sequence and play with the timing, replaying the animation back instantly to test how it’s looking. This easy playback also enables the animator to experiment more with a sense of dynamic ‘camerawork’ on their cuts. This is why many gif-animators have a highly-evolved grasp on how to create animation that feels like it’s totally free in a 3D space, with spinning cameras and lots of background animation.
Drawing within flash also allows much more efficient management of layers to animation, granting the ability to toggle on and off any number of layers on the screen at the click of a button rather than trying to coordinate sets of drawings. I don’t think this has really started to be taken full advantage of yet but certainly it enabled BahiJD to play around with scenes packed with many layers of Space Dandy to an exciting effect.
Another interesting stylistic thing you notice with a lot of digitally-animated sequences from gif-animators is that they’ll use forms of colour with minimal linework or even NO linework. This is especially true of their effects animation, which often portrays magic, flame, laser beams, etc. as borderless streams or shapes of colour. The simple reason for this is that in drawing digitally you can very easily use the solid paint tool to draw. These digital genga from Birdy illustrate the use of this tool:
This sort of globular, borderless colour is a distinctly new style that these guys are bringing to anime and allows for some effects to be created much quicker than having to draw the extent of the shapes with linework or paint. As it’s quicker to create, effect animation of this variety can often be made extremely fluid and fast.
Perhaps the most evolved example of this style comes from Shin Sekai Yori, by its number one user, Shingo Yamashita. This is the ED from that show, which he animated. It’s striking and unique because of the way it feels painted rather than drawn, and that comes from this approach.
Limitations of Digital Animation
That said, it also serves to highlight the downside to digital animation – the ability to be expressive in animation through changing-up the linework, like making it rough or gritty to add raw intensity to a cut. I can’t imagine things like Yoshimichi Kameda’s sumi-e brush style animation being possible on a tablet.
Kameda and others using rough and experimental shading and linework on paper create some truly powerful moments of animation and drawings that digital animation would really struggle to replicate.
A certain amount of finesse and subtlety is also lost when drawing with a tablet. Although they are improving every year, the precision of digital drawing may never match the absolute control an artist has with pencil or paint on paper.
For some of these animators, particularly those in the ameteur stage of their career, there may actually be a risk that these ease of modifying the drawings across their timeline reinforces some bad habits. It allows for gif animators’ tendency to make characters move extravagantly and wildly for movement’s sake. There may well be less value placed on getting each key-frame right, and therefore the animation is less through-conceived and more created on the fly, the final product being more dynamic but with less gravity and impact.
Ryo-chimo & The Evolution of Digital Animation
Although many of these web-animators have had experience creating animation with flash for their own hobby gifs and side-projects, many are faced with entering an industry that remains largely powered by pencil-and-paper drawings. That said, it has come a long way in the last few years towards facilitating the use of digital animation in normal commercial productions. This change hasn’t happened on its own, animators have had to push for it, and no one has pushed harder or further than a man named Ryo-chimo.
Ryo-chimo (real name: Ryousuke Sawa), is pretty recognisable as the vanguard of the web generation of animators, being one of the first to turn professional after being scouted for his gifs (Kenichi Kutsuna is generally considered to be the first). From there, he very quickly rose to prominence as a central figure in the ongoing movement towards digital animation. He’s also one of the best examples of a preternaturally talented animator whose lack of a formal animation training background does not seem to have in any way impeded his ability to tackle any kind of animation.
In his youth he was an avid anime fan and otaku and this led him into illustration and animation as a hobby. After briefly working at a game company, he got his foot in the industry’s door back in 2004 when he was scouted by the illustrious Osamu Kobayashi for his new anime, BECK. Kobayashi saw the gifs Ryo-chimo had put together on his website and, being Osamu Kobayashi, thought it worth giving him an opportunity to see what he could do. In an almost unprecedented move, without spending any time at all doing in-between work, Ryo-chimo leapt straight into doing key animation in the first episode and became a mainstay animator of the series.
Soon after, he was invited to work on Sousei no Aquarion where he first worked with an animator he considers to be a god, Satoru Utsunomiya, who was largely in charge of episode 19. Satoru Utsunomiya deserves a lot of credit for scouting and providing opportunity to several important digital animators at this time, such as Kenichi Kutsuna, and being a proponent of the use of digital tools. During Sousei Aquarion he pushed the use of digital, 3D layouts (animation drafts), which are now commonplace in anime production. Thanks to Utsunomiya, Ryo-chimo’s work here on episode 19 is actually the first time he was able to draw digitally in his professional anime career (which you can see his raw key frames for here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U08rIirZrTo ).
Ryo-chimo’s next big gig, also with Utsunomiya, was just around the corner: the awesome and experimental anime called Noein. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend checking it out. Not only does it have a very unique and fascinating sci-fi story, it’s also unusual in terms of its production, opting not to to have a series animation director; each episode’s animation director’s own style crept through with their uncorrected take on the character designs. On this series he was a regular animator and essentially studied under Utsunomiya and the illustrious Norio Matsumoto. When given the chance to key animate a climactic battle scene in episode 12, he produced a sequence that really put him in the spotlight as a young star animator.
The smooth yet intense animation had a thrilling gravitas to it that made it one of the most memorable parts of the whole show. I remember sitting up and being totally struck by the power of the animation in this scene, and that was back before I was interested in animation specifically. Norio Matsumoto was the animation director on that episode and gave Ryo-chimo that part to work on. Apparently it was Norio Matsumoto’s idea to use the rough line-work in the scene that gave it that visceral edge. This explains why, on the surface, it’s not quite Ryo-chimo’s usual style, which favours minimalistic, very clean and nuanced linework.
The next indicator of Ryo-chimo’s greatness was probably his scene from Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo, which is his own, personal favourite bit of work to date. He animated the scene of Makoto running down the street followed by the camera. In an interesting twist on the sequence, she starts to falter from exhaustion and is overtaken by the camera, only to regain her strength off-screen and push herself back into the frame. It’s fun ideas like these that can really make animation interesting! The sequence showed that Ryo-chimo was able to draw convincing character movement to a high degree of realism.
Apparently he got the idea for the strong portrayal of her exhaustion using reference footage of him actually running down the street as fast as he could, with other film crew driving alongside him to film it. The cut was extended out to a much longer sequence that originally intended following his work.
From there, after a couple of years worth of more compelling animation, including a scene from Mitsuo Iso’s enigmatic TV anime Denno Coil, Ryo-chimo moved up a level to the position of character designer/chief animation director of Birdy the Mighty Decode. Ryo-chimo was well established as a popular illustrator and he created some unapologetically attractive and charismatic character designs for Birdy Decode. Belying his origins as an otaku, his predilection for drawing lascivious and moe characters was on full display, but he also showed his ability to create characters with an indescribable vivid depth and personality . Very much in the web-generation philosophy he designs characters which favour simple linework and bold colours over the luscious detail and highlights associated with the previous era of anime.
His characters come to life with vibrant colours and striking expressions. This web-generation style is quickly rising to prominence as a dominant new, modern look for anime, with many other series like Rolling Girls, Yoru no Yatterman, etc, that have these younger people involved leaning towards it. But Ryo-chimo really paved the way with Birdy.
But he did more than just succeed as a character designer for that series, he also seized the opportunity to introduce the use of digital animation. To overcome a general sense of resistance from many at the studio (A-1 Pictures), Ryo-chimo went about assembling a team of people who were on-board with implementing the use of digital tools. With the backing he needed, he managed the first implementation and support of digital animation on such a scale, with whole swaths of the series being drawn in Flash. This really fully came about in season 2 and gave a number of these web-gen animators the chance to better show off what they could do with their native platform. The result was sequences like this:
Birdy also allowed for several other animators to be introduced to the use of flash and digital animation, perhaps most notably Tomoyuki Niho, who is now well-known as a web-generation animator (incidentally, Niho’s professional debut was on Noein). The series courted some degree of controversy in season 2 when the Ryo-chimo and the director decided that they would let the animators draw fully in their own style without supervision in episode 7 (and 12). The result was an action-heavy episode that presented radically different animation styles between shots, many of them looking totally unlike the usual presentation of the show. This segment was from Tomoyuki Niho:
The borderline abstract, angular geometrical forms are actually in his style, not the result of the show ‘running out of money’ or being grossly ‘behind schedule’ as was commonly asserted (I suspect there was some time pressure, if only due to the absence of the correcting power of a supervising animator). Whatever the case, the experiment was not well-received by the fan-base and the episodes were heavily corrected for the DVD release (here’s Tomoyuki Niho’s bit corrected).
Birdy’s experimentation may have been hit and miss, but when it hit it delivered punchy and jaw-dropping action sequences with a kind of speed and ferociousness I hadn’t ever seen before.
The next step in his career came with the chance to direct the 3-episode OVA reboot of Yozakura Quartet (Yozakura Quartet: Hoshi no Umi). For this, he got together many of his associates for a web-gen animator laden explosion of stunning animation and sleek, modern production work.
Following that success, a series was announced. Yozakura Quartet: Hana no Uta was brought to TV with Ryo-chimo as director, character designer and chief animation director (for all but one episode). Being a chief animation director (CAD) on an anime TV series is a phenomenal effort, but being the director AND CAD is just astronomical, and really quite a rare thing. Ryo-chimo must have not slept for months! No wonder he says his career focus is on short anime works now (as sad as that is to hear). Needless to say, he didn’t get to do any key animation on this series.
But with the level of ownership he had of this series, he was able to assemble a team of digital animators to further what he started with Birdy. For the very first episode he achieved the goal of creating an episode entirely with digital key-animation, something that hadn’t yet been done, to my knowledge. Unlike the rougher experiments on Birdy, this episode turned out to be a remarkably polished and charming gem, and webgen-styled through and through. Detailed design and art-focus was traded in for playful movement and liveliness, but it was more carefully crafted and tempered than web-animators had been known for. Here, Ryo-chimo proved the viability of the digital animation production process for commercial TV anime.
To make this happen, Ryo-chimo leant heavily on frequent collaborator and Flash-animator extraordinaire, Shingo Yamashita. Often called ‘yama’ for short, Shingo Yamashita is easily the best animator out there who uses flash for his work. He created my personal favourite bit of animation in Hoshi no Umi OVA, which is another one of those special bits of animation that awoke me to how awesome animation itself can be.
To this day it remains one of my favourite segments of animation for its wild, kinetic energy. Ryo-chimo bought him on board for Yozakura Quartet knowing full well that, to make it work, he would need someone with vast digital experience and talent to guide and supervise the relatively young digital animator team he had assembled. Shingo Yamashita bought his own colleagues on board for the project as well, forming a trio with Sakazume Takahito and Enokido Shun throughout the series.
The team he led, who also came back for episode 6 and other parts of the series, included the following names:
関弘光 (Hiromitsu Seki)
小笠原真 (Shin Ogawara)
亀澤蘭 (Norifumi Kugai)
黒岩志摩 (Shima Kuroiawa)
藤澤研一 (Kenichi Fujiwara)
伊勢鷹人 (Ise Takahito)
川野達朗 (Kawano Tatsurou, the digital animation director for the episode)
Many of these guys are now established digital animator names in the industry, appearing on web-gen friendly series like Love Lab, Space Dandy (episode 13 in particular), Yama no Susume season episode 13, Ping Pong, Naruto and Yoru no Yatterman. At one point or another almost all notable web-gen animators were involved in the creation of Hana no Uta.
But he did more than just reel in the right animators for the work, he implemented a digital production process at studio Tatsunoko which remains alive and well today. Much like what web-gen animators did for studio Dougakobo after Yuruyuri, his work with Tatsunoko on Yozakura Quartet brought about a revitalisation to the studio, whose works since have become known for their fun, energetic animation and visual cool-factor. A legacy of Ryo-chimo’s efforts, Tatsunoko Productions is one of the biggest users of digital animation and now provides their animators with tablets if it is their tool of choice (whereas you’d normally have to pay for your own).
You can see that Tatsunoko is fostering quite a bit of web-gen talent through their series since, such as Yoru no Yatterman, which features a large array of these guys, led by Tatsuya Yoshihara, creating pretty much all of its stand-out moments of animation.
Ryo-chimo himself, meanwhile has created his own company, Time Note Animation, where he lists himself as an animator and illustrator. He seems to have parted ways with Tatsunoko somewhat and is now looking more at the animated short production space rather than commercial TV works. The most recent example of this was ME! ME! ME!, the short created for Hideaki Anno’s Animator Expo initiative, for which Ryo-chimo was listed as a planning advisor. He also appears to be a vocal proponent and teacher of digital animation, often giving lectures at animation schools on the topic or participating in industry events.
Nowadays a lot of the most arresting and exciting animated scenes in TV anime are being brought to you by the new web generation and, thanks largely to the efforts of people like Ryo-chimo and Shingo Yamashita, they are increasingly able to create using their weapon of choice: digital animation. This is rapidly changing the face of anime as we know it, ushering in a new flavour of modernism which endows their work flashy, hyperactive animation and simple yet elegant character designs with vivid, iridescent colour schemes. The hangover of the detail and realism oriented 90s is being superseded by this bold new look and it’s breathing a fresh life into the medium, exemplified by series like Kyousogiga, Yozakura Quartet and P.A Works’ Uchoten Kazoku.
Digital animation has already introduced some new techniques that have added to the repertoire of animation, but at the same time, others out there like Yoshimichi Kameda are highlighting that there’s just some things pencil and paper will always offer over digital drawing. Right now the industry is benefiting from both sides of the story – digital animation styles are being experimented with right alongside analog animation and the new web-generation are showing their own brand of charismatic animation in the same series as some of the highly-trained veterans are producing astounding sequences with the utmost technical prowess.
So we’re experiencing the best of both worlds. But if the institutional training style of the traditional industry subsides to the tide of brash, self-made gif animators jumping into the fray, there’s a real risk that we’ll eventually lose animators of a certain calibre: those with the meticulous draftsmanship, unwavering professionalism and a studious attention to the art of movement that gave us films like Ghost in the Shell, Jin-Roh and Akira. Fortunately, studios like Ghibli, Kyoto Animation and Production I.G continue to carefully nurture and train their own animators in the more conventional way (and it really shows in their works too).
Within the diverse, colourful spectrum of overzealous anime fans across the world there exists a small but growing number of us with a particular bent. If you’re like me, then, at some point, being able to just enjoy good anime wasn’t enough – to satisfy a growing curiosity I had to know why it was good. As it turns out, this was the first tumble down a very slippery, very long slope which would eventually lead me to such depraved depths as spending a good few hours researching the credits a short anime review on a series I’m not even particularly passionate about! If you’re a part of this faction of the anime fandom you may exhibit symptoms such as:
You see an anime and feel violent urges to pick it apart, down to its skeletal core of production values and staff credits.
You might actually be bothered wanting to know who in particular animated the smoke in the background of a fight scene.
You could find yourself watching anime you really hate just because it has some interesting staff in the credits.
You might find yourself becoming irrationally angry at ANN reviews.
You become a highly efficient, streamlined twitter-stalking machine for anime staff.
To others, this may seem like nitpickery, or even an obsession taken to creepy levels. Most people are perfectly happy seeing something that looks good and talking about the story and the characters. Conversely, they’re unhappy seeing things that they feel don’t look good.
And that’s perfectly fine. Let’s face it, that makes sense. But if you happen to have stumbled into that slippery slope, it can be hard to look back. That’s because you gain an appreciation of just how much work goes into anime from everyone involved, and how much of that work is creative, personal and born from a deep-seated attachment to the industry and the anime. Blood sweat and tears and donuts are the secret ingredients behind nearly every good anime, and even many of the mediocre ones. And those ingredients can’t just be bought in bulk by the studio or director of the day – they’re shed by people. So many of the names on the credit list that most people skip at the end of each episode are absolutely vital to helping make the episode what it was.
And it doesn’t just lead to nitpicking, for me, this deeper appreciation of the people behind anime has unlocked a new, visceral love for the medium. In the climactic animation sequences of Space Dandy’s finale I got goosebumps seeing the work of animators Yoshimichi Kameda, BahiJD and Yutaka Nakamura, because I was in awe of their talent. 5 years ago I might have thought it looked ‘kinda cool’ and then quickly forgotten about it. But now I know: no other three people could have produced a sequence that looked quite like that. And I know that their efforts represent a new step in a career of hard-work and personal growth.
Enter Shirobako: the anime about cute girls making anime about cute girls. In just 7 episodes, this anime has done more to convey exactly what I’m talking about than I could have in a thousand blog posts (even if people actually read my blog!). Not only does it do a great job of very realistically showing the production process of TV anime in great detail, but it also scratches beneath the technical workflows and gets into the motivations, aspirations, foibles and challenges of the many people behind it. Make no mistake, although these are fictional characters, their passion for the job, the struggles they deal with are all very real reflections of the very real people behind the industry.
I’m actually surprised it’s taken this long for something like Shirobako to come along (the closest thing I can think of would be the more comedic Animation Runner Kuromi). I’m not sure whether it’s because directors and producers have shied away from the topic for fear that there was no appetite among anime fans for this setting, or that they thought it would be too awkwardly introspective to create, but it’s been a long time coming. The men who finally made it happen are Kenji Horikawa (founder, director, and main driving force of P.A Works) and director Tsutomu Mizushima. Apparently, the idea for the anime started while they shared a train ride together around 3 years ago (possibly when they were working together on Another). They had the desire to bring the personal side of anime production to light and to explore every facet of production, connecting the many often isolated sections that operate in the industry into a story. Together, they originally nutted out ideas such as the beginning sequence of the group wanting to make a school-project anime and get into the industry, and the street-racing scene from the first episode.
But only now have they got it off the ground. There’s no denying this is their work, and their idea (mainly Horikawa’s by the sound of it). Both of them have a wealth of experience in the industry: Horikawa has worked at Production I.G, Tatsunoko Productions and Bee Train before finally starting up P.A Works. As the founder of the company, it’s clearly his experience managing all areas of production which has laid the groundwork for the show’s storytelling. Mizushima Tsutomu, with a prolific and rock-solid career behind him, including works such as Blood-C, xxxHolic, Squid Girl, etc, brings an effective directorial presence. The show’s production has been polished (albeit not very charismatic), and, being known for his comedy anime, he brings a much needed sense of humour to what might have otherwise been too dry of an anime to swallow. Interestingly, he’s also sound director on this anime which, as far as I’m aware, is quite unusual. His familiarity with music predates his career in anime though, as he originally wanted to be a music teacher after finished high school, before winding up in anime after not being able to get into that profession. Still, the director credit is usually enough work for one person, so he must really be stretched thin.
He would have bought on writer Michiko Yokote to this project, having worked extensively with her on the past on his projects, and she delivers a strong script packed with interesting interpersonal drama and multiple layers of story development with well-written female characters. As a side note, it’s rumoured that Michiko Yokote is actually a team of 3 female writers based on a blog post she wrote some time ago (a rumour that many English websites have echoed as fact). However, given the jovial tone of the post and the fact that it seems impractical, I’m inclined to believe it’s not true. Alongside her writes the accomplished Reiko Yoshida (Keion, Kaleido Star, REC, Scrapped Princess, and many more) who I actually think delivers more resonant and interesting episodes.
For an anime that brings to light the talents and hard-work of charismatic animators, the production is almost ironically mute in execution. There’s little room for expressionistic or idiosyncratic animation, except in the meta anime that the staff are producing. But the strength of Shirobako is in its fascinating look at the internal guts of the industry.
Exploration of the Industry
Shirobako is set in a fictional studio called Musashino Animation (look, the even made a fake website for the studio) who are currently working on a new anime series, Exodus. Musashino animation is a small Tokyo-based studio the likes of which comprise the majority of anime companies out there. Through this setting it tells the story of 5 girls who are living and working towards their high-school dream of creating anime together. There’s a rookie voice actress, a production assistant, a key animator, a 3DCG operator, and an aspiring script-writer The anime explores their lives in the industry as well as the many other production staff that surround them. Some interesting things they’ve covered include:
The apocalyptic struggle of one overworked production assistant against a tsunami of work and a tight schedule is vividly portrayed throughout Shirobako, and is the focus of episode 3. In the episode, Aoi faces an uphill battle to get an episode finished after it is derailed by a collapsed animator and a grossly indecisive director. TV anime typically run on tight schedules, going to air with only a handful of completed episodes to act as a buffer before inevitably being caught, pants-down in a frantic race to finish every episode. Stories of animators pulling all nighters or virtually living in the studio are commonplace, and it’s not all that rare for episodes to only just be completed in time for airing.
In this climate of fast-paced production it’s no surprise that anime are frequently derailed into ‘production hell’ . The server being down in episode 3 of Shirobako is apparently something that actually happened at P.A Works during work on the final episode of Hanasaku Iroha. While that case ended happily, sometimes episodes end up going to air incomplete or not at all. Episode 10 of Bakemonogatari went to air disturbingly unfinished, with many cuts being substituted with a black screen and some text, and I recall this being blamed on staff illness. Even successful shows that are generally considered well produced often have their feet scorched by the fiery furnace of hell below. On several occasions Shingeki no Kyoujin employed over 10 animation directors on a single episode, which is a clear sign of a rushed anime with a lot of poor drawings needing correction, and there were even calls on twitter trying to recruit animators to the project mid-production. Episode 13 showed the result, with a bunch of awkwardly long still shots and many action cuts being substituted by scenic shots of the city.
Time is money, but money can’t buy time when things go to hell. Hopefully Shirobako’s glimpse into a studio grappling with the schedule demons might dispel the myth that drops in anime quality are caused by a studio ‘running out of money’. While this can happen, it’s very rare and extraordinary, yet it seems to be the go-to explanation for a shoddy episode by most anime fans.
The References to Real people
Shirobako is packed full with references to real people, places and events within the industry. Some of them are subtle, others not so much, but it’s a lot of fun to try keep an eye out for them! Probably the most obvious ones are the oafish, man-child director, who is modelled after Seiji Mizushima and the aloof, inexplicably culinary company president, who is based on the CEO of studio Mappa (and co-founder of Madhouse), Masao Maruyama. Given his real-life parallel, Seiji Mizushima’s character is portrayed in a surprisingly unflattering light, but he’s presumably in on the joke after he uploaded this photo of himself in a matching blue-polo shirt!!
I’m not sure where the proclivity for cooking in Masao’s character comes from, but it seems to be a running joke. I actually saw a photo of Maruyama cooking with a pot on the internet, but now I can’t seem to track it down again!
Studios and other anime series are often mentioned with bastardised or cryptic names, and the seiyuus actually appear as themselves! It’s a lot of fun for someone with an existing interest in the faces behind anime. As a point of interest, director Mizushima Tsutomu calls Tarou, the most annoying character int he show, his former self (hopefully he’s joking!)
CG versus 2D
The was palpable sense of tension between CG animators and traditional animators in episode 5. Apparently they actually consulted with the legendary Ichiro Itano for this episode, who actually went into direction with CG from his origins as a 2D animator (traitor!!). He also I saw somewhere that Itano might be participating in a commentary for the episode’s Blu-ray release, which should prove interesting.
Although obviously exaggerated here, I’d guess that there is an air of conflict in the anime industry between these two sides of the fence. The encroachment of 3DCG into more and more areas of the medium is like a dark, ominous cloud hanging over the industry. When anime first started to use 3DCG it was experimental and used for specific things that would either be too hard to animate traditionally or which were clearly suitable for a CG treatment like spaceships and mecha. It was used to add value to anime in specific ways like having a lot of moving background characters that would have been impossibly expensive and time-consuming for a TV-anime. This all enabled animators to focus more on better foreground, character drawings (and certain studios kept the 2D mecha tradition alive). But now we’re getting whole anime done in CG – clearly it’s gone from being a complement to the 2D industry to a rival.
Personally I think it’s about time we started drawing clear battle-lines here when it comes to CG. The western 2D animation industry basically immediately evaporated after directors and producers jumped ship when they saw the new shiny, trendy 3D animation, but Japan has so far not succumbed so readily. It’s like a last bastion of hope for fans of 2D animation (and I’m talking about GOOD animation, not flash-in-betweened rubbish). CG, while still taking skill in and of itself, is a form of animation that is more science than it is art – it lacks the raw creative spark that comes from the hand and the many nuances of drawn animation.
So, to be honest, I was totally onside with the animator. CG can have its place, but now that we’ve got whole anime being done in the style, it represents a real threat to the industry and I say we should push back!
The Animator Crunch
The look into Ema’s struggle with starting out as a key animator. Just getting into the job, she is facing the crunch that most animators need to get through, the first big hurdle: the ability to draw both quickly and well, and being able to aptly juggle these two opposing forces in her daily work.
I think this is really interesting to see play out on a personal level, and I hope people watching take home the fact that there’s a lot more to being a good animator than simply being able to draw. Being flagged as someone with potential for character design, Ema is obviously a good drawer and a competent animator, but she is struggling with just 10 cuts under time pressure. Unless you have a reputation as a star animator, it’s not enough to be good, you have to be good and fast! It really serves to highlight the herculean efforts of some animators who are able to draw entire episodes by themselves and maintain a high level of quality, or who are able to actually create animation that is thrilling on an individualistic level after just starting out.
Many animators-to-be quit the job because they can’t push past this roadblock with either talent or sheer guts and determination, so let’s give due respect those who do overcome it!
Although it’s not exactly anything we didn’t know before, the Shirobako website posted a neat little info-graphic showing the salaries of the various people involved. It’s not news that the salary of a fresh key animator is terribly low, but it’s still frightening seeing such a stark comparison. With the much more attractive salary of an animation director/character designer it’s easy to see why most good animators work their way up to that role, or turn towards storyboarding and direction (although being an animation director is very tough work that doesn’t pay especially well on a per-cut basis).
Those animators who stick with key animation in the long-run are few and far between and tend to be the rare, prodigious individual who is talented enough to make a name for themselves as a top, sought after resource. These people find themselves with proper salaries or a much higher per-drawing pay-rate. Some animators who seem like they were born to walk the path of a pure animator include the likes of Shinya Ohira, Yutaka Nakamura, Toshiyuki Inoue, etc. These days it’s usually better to be talented in a stand-out way than to work hard at progressing as an animator.
What I do like is how they subtly touch on the money issue without being preachy or self-pitying in the process. Although not well-paid, young animators take pride in their job and are driven by their love for it.
Interestingly, the role of Sound Director is not included here. A few years ago, a report from the Japanese Animation Creators Association which highlighted (and perhaps exaggerated) the plight of young animators caused a bit of stir. Yamasaki Osamu wrote for them discussing pay inequities within the industry and pointed out that sound directors are paid a little over half as much as episode director’s per episode, but are able to finish an episode in two days rather than a matter of weeks. As a result, they often juggle 2-3 series at a time and can commonly end up with salaries of $200,000 or more, more than the executive producer on the chart above. With that said, it sure is intriguing that Mizushima Tsutomu is also sound director on this anime! I certainly can’t tell any difference from other anime!
In the end..
If you think back to a scene in anime that struck you as being awesomely animated and it was almost certainly thanks to the tireless work of a particular animator. Look at Yoshimichi Kameda’s scene from Space Dandy #26, the electric, swirling fire dragon was all animated by him and is a sentimental bow to the animator who inspired and influenced him from the beginning, the recently deceased legend Yoshinori Kanada; the action climax of the ghost in the Shell movie was animated by Mitsuo Iso who apparently studied a spider he’d captured in a jar to help craft the movements of the spider-tank; Ichiro Itano’s famous, twirling, spiraling missiles were drawn from his memories of strapping fireworks to his bike and riding as they shot out around him; hell, Gainax was founded by a bunch of university drop-out nerds who bound together to animate an intro to a sci-fi convention. We’re used to watching interesting stories play out in our favourite anime, but what Shirobako reveals is that those anime are often built on fascinating, real-life stories of the people involved. The more I look into the many remarkable people working in this medium the more I discover that they are driven by a passion for animation and storytelling.
I’m confident that Shirobako has lifted the veil over the anime industry for a lot of people, both in Japan and abroad, and all we can do is hope that this fosters more interest in and better understanding of the people who pour their life into the anime we enjoy every week. I’d love to see more people join me in the tireless pursuit of uncovering these people and stories behind anime! At the very least, some mainstream reviews might be able to start giving credit where credit where it’s due a little better instead of lumping it all at the foot of the director or any name they happen recognise.
With an utterly dazzling final salvo, Space Dandy has reached the end of its eclectic journey. I don’t have a lot of time on my hands these days to get drawn into discussions on anime, but I had to make an exception here. Following the path of its other recent top-tier title, Star Driver, BONES have concentrated a staggering well of talent, money and effort into ensuring Dandy’s last step is a remarkable one, and one that is brilliantly animated. But bluntly, they succeeded. I haven’t seen such an intense combination of animation of this caliber from so many vastly different styles packed into 20 minutes since Shinya Ohira directed the animation spectacle that was Azura’s Wrath 11.5! It was an entertaining, climactic rush, but more importantly, I got that feeling again. That visceral, gut feeling of being swept away by animation that isn’t just competent or technically impressive but is also alive with creative energy and spirit.
It kicked off with the furious speed of Hiroyuki Aoyama’s cuts of the Aloha Oeentering the battlefield, spinning and spazzing, really sucked me in with the smooth momentum of Keiichiro Watanabe’s chase scene, pushed higher with the jittery humor and raw drive of Norifumi Kugai’s work and then hit a resounding high-note with truly fantastic animation from arguably the biggest talents in Dandy: Yoshimichi Kameda, Yutaka Nakamura and BahiJD. These people all put the passion for their work on full display this episode, and you could really feel it breathing in every frame. There’s no doubt they were given free reign over their cuts to make them as great as they could.
Keiichiro Watanabe may have achieved his best work to date here with very tricky background animation work and a great sense of movement – I could really see the thrust of a powerful rocket behind the advance of the Aloha Oe. Meanwhile, Norifumi Kugai definitely reached new heights with his efforts here, being a relative newcomer to the industry. The sheer speed and determination of the ship could be felt as it pushed to the top of the tower.
Yoshimichi Kameda contributed a blatant reference to Yoshinori Kanada’s famous fire dragon, but it’s not just a throwaway nod to the animator that inspired him and so many others – it’s a full bow. Of all the allusions that animators have made to that dragon, this is the first time that anyone has come close to matching the original undulating beauty of its twisting, formless movement. Kameda has pushed himself to match the work of his predecessor and has really evoked his spirit in doing so.
Yutaka Nakamura handles the next beat, which is Dandy cutting the the space eels with the sword and then nakedly erupting from his mecha for a final push towards the centre of the weapon. Not to be outdone, he imbues it with his usual effortless gravitas and thrilling choreography. But this episode was also noteworthy for him because, as Bahi explained on his twitter, he was inspired to try drawing some of his raw animation digitally (using a tablet). It’s interesting to see the inter-generational influence going on in places like Bones. Bahi himself animated the final high-note of animation, ending with the awesome zoom-in to Dandy’s eye. His work on Dandy speaks for itself – as a young animator only really just starting in the industry, his achievements are remarkable and his skill undeniable.
Other than the animation, there wasn’t a whole lot going on with this final episode, but that’s the way it should be. As a show that has made no excuse for being almost solely about profiling the visual storytelling skills of a wide swath of the anime industry, there could be no better send-off. Someone gave Shinichiro Watanabe a whole bunch of money with few strings attached, and he did what any great anime director/producer would do and gave as many creatively-charged staff from across the industry a free stage to do what they do best.
As a series overall, Dandy isn’t especially memorable, but as an ode to so many of the talented people that make up the most alive and interesting 2D animation industry in the world, it was worth every second. It’s just a shame that even more people couldn’t have been involved – but uniting all the best anime staff is just a dream, not a possibility.
Love Lab is a romantic school comedy based on a four-panel manga straight from the pen-hand of Ruri Miyahara. The premise is simple – the student council at a respectable all-girls are drawn into their president’s whirlwind of naive romance fantasies, ultimately becoming a club for practicing at the art of finding love. At first it didn’t sound like it was worth the effort of giving a go, but I think fate must have been at play; I ended up stumbling into it anyway, and, when I did stumble into it, I fell head over heels in love. Yep, as it turns out, Love Lab has a hell of a lot more going for it than its synopsis belies. Beneath that thin veneer of been-done romantic comedy genre clone, Love Lab has a beating heart and a healthy pulse. Its characters are earnest and charming, its jokes are genuinely funny, and its production is unexpectedly fresh and energised. Make no mistake, this is one of those series that just has something about it, a spring in its step, a glint in its eye, a certain buzz that makes it feel really alive. At its best, Love Lab is totally irresistible and kind of electric to watch. But don’t take my word for it, please go check it out!
Even if you don’t, let’s take a look at why it turned out the way it did; why wasn’t Love Lab just another cute-girls-messing-around-in-school comedy destined to be relegated to the bargain bin of forgotten mediocrity? Maybe it’s the exemplary voice acting work of the main cast (especially Chinatsu Akasaki as the elegant and lovably weird Maki ). Maybe it’s because it was spearheaded by perhaps the most notable director-writer duo of the anime industry’s comedy corner: director Ohta Masahiko and writer Aoshima Takashi. Bordering on not actually being separate people, Aoshima has been the series composer and main writer for every last one of Ohta’s works. Together, they had left a string of well-received comedy series in their wake by this point, from Minami-ke, through to Mitsudomoe and Yuruyuri. Aoshima is a natural at writing scripts that juggle comedy and endearing characters and stories, which definitely comes through here. Ohta meanwhile is known for the extra-animated, energetic visual comedy he often puts into his work.
But never have these two struck success as they did with the breakaway hit Yuruyuri. Why? I would argue that it’s because of the group of animators that was assembled across that show’s two seasons who were able to go that extra mile in injecting fun and interesting animation. Ohta’s other shows certainly have memorable moments of animation, but not with the intensity or pizazz of Yuruyuri. That same team were reunited for Love Lab a year later and in their resurgence they pushed the quality and charisma of their animation to new heights! Many anime out there have exceptional voice acting and solid scripts, but fewer can compete with Love Lab when it comes to the vigour and personality of their animation.
The Animation of Love Lab
If you think of the directors and the writers as building the frame, then the animators are the ones that put in all the hand-made details and final touches. It’s their finish which can either make or break an anime which is good by design. Love Lab was one of the fortunate ones, with an enamoring animation quality that really made the anime the engrossing and fun series that it was.
The animation on the whole has a vibe to it that I haven’t seen anywhere else: at times it’s unabashedly limited animation, lavished with intricate detail such as lusciously-drawn, swaying hair or precisely folding clothes; other times it’s fluidly realised with cartoonish distortions and expressions. But, remarkably, although it casually flickers between eclectic styles, it feels coherent in its own playful kind of way. There’s just something natural about the way these animators work together that makes their styles compliment each other and add attitude and richness to the series instead of clashing. And above all there’s this feeling emanating from the animation – that it’s the product of an aspiring and talented young generation, of their extra effort and the pride they took in their work.
Often, animation quality is a topic that gets left behind (or completely misrepresented) in most fan reviews and discussions, but I doubt there would be many viewers who didn’t sit up and notice it in Love Lab, especially in some key episodes. Maki’s sensuous twirls as her cross-dressing counter part, Suzune’s clumsy flusters, Riko’s raw, fierce punches – the colourful and charismatic way the characters move in Love Lab defines their personalities as much as the things they say. And it wasn’t just the joke cuts either – the scene of Riko being upset in the hallway in episode 3 portrayed Riko with an unspoken tenderness and vulnerability that we never would have seen without the creative spark of the animator behind it. This is what I mean by the animators being the ones who put in the finishing touches. There are plenty of anime out there with more expensive and technically impressive animation, but Love Lab is a shining example of how a handful of animators can bring a character to life in ways that the director and writer couldn’t possibly envision. There are a few studios and directors out there who should pay attention to this fact. You can spend thousands of frames making a character walk around fluidly and say a whole lot less than a turn of the cheek, a shudder or a glance can in just a few.
The Dogakobo Yuruyuri Gang
The dynamism in Love Lab’s animation comes from a group of younger, up-and-comers working at or associated with studio Dogakobo. The studio has actually been around for some time: it was founded in 1973 as a pure animation workshop and, since Nausicaa Valley of the Wind that year, has done considerable work on Ghibli movies. It changed tack in 2005 by making a push to producing its own works. It gained a reputation as a studio for mediocre eroge adaptations such as Koihime Musou and Hoshizora e Kakaru Hashi with its subsequent works. But between 2011 and 2012 a kind of revolution happened at the company, hand-in-hand with the success of Yuruyuri. The studio has now become known for quality animation and popular comedy series. The company hired up at this time, opening its doors to a new generation of animators. The 2012 sequel to Yuruyuri gave them the first real opportunity show what they could do, and it was glaringly obvious that they had struck some real talent with their new employees and those other young animators they gathered for the project.
Yuryuri was transformative for Dogakobo and a pivotal career launching point for this group of skilled animators. In that sense, it was an important anime in terms of the broader industry as well, as these guys are out there and very active today. Only a year later, Love Lab was the very next step that this group would take all together and they proved they weren’t a one hit wonder, raising the stakes and delivering their best work yet. The vigour of these fresh animators at Dogakobo is put on great display in Love Lab.
Let’s look of some of the most notable people in this group:
The one with the most obvious stamp on the show’s look has got to be the character designer, Nakajima Chiaki. Nakajima is an animator and Dogakobo employee who has been active since 2005. She resumes the role of character designer/chief AD after having done it for the first time on Yuruyuri. Her designs for Love Lab are stellar, undeniably cute but also full of character and zest. She didn’t get to do any actual key animation on the show, but the visual roadmap she laid out with her designs and animation oversight work make her a major part of its charming look. Although she was integral in both Yuruyuri and Love Lab, I don’t see her as being part of the following group of animators as much as she is just a prominent Dogakobo staffer. The reason for this is that she hasn’t often worked alongside them in a key animation capacity.
Ooshima Enishi left a huge imprint on Love Lab, being a major animator on several episodes (there’s a good chance he did more animation than anyone else). But he wasn’t just a mindless workhorse of the show – the style and charisma he wove into his animation was a major part of Love Lab’s aesthetic. His drawing style is distinctively crisp and highly detailed, while his motions are an exhilarating mix of swaying hair and clothes and boppy, cutesy character acting. His predilection for eloquently detailed hair is definitely noticeable in Love Lab. He also gives me the impression of an animator who takes great pride in their work and is willing to work himself that extra mile. He recently gained a lot of attention for animating all of Gochuumon wa Usagi-desu-ka alongside only one other person (key animation). Although not a Dogakobo employee, he has worked closely with them since Yuruyuri season 2.
Yuuki Watanabe is another animator who has only just burst into the animation industry. He has rapidly risen to become one of Dogakobo’s most valuable assets. From doing animation on only one episode of the 2012 Yuruyuri, he stepped up to doing a significant amount of key animation for a whopping 5 episodes of Love Lab, and even more for their following series, Mikakunin de Shinkoukei . He brings the more whacky and cartoony moments to the show, with very fast, fluid movements and fun, inventive distortions such as people’s body parts being left behind between frames. The mix of his comical, expressive animation and Ooshima’s more flamboyant, detailed work, these two probably had the biggest hand in crafting Love Lab’s memorable, charismatic animation palette.
Although he doesn’t seem to be a Dogakobo employee (the sakuga wiki postulates that he’s freelance), he has much the same career path as these guys and he is often associated with Dogakobo works. Like Yuuki Watanabe, his first credit is on the second season of Yuruyuri, on which he did key animation for 3 episodes. And, like all the others, his involvement ramped up for Love Lab – doing key animation for 5 episodes. Quite different again to Ooshima or Yuuki, Nishii’s style seems to be quite gentle and densely fluid with natural movements. He’s clearly quite a skilled and industrious young animator who I hope will get more opportunities to show of what he can do in the years to come. He hasn’t been that active lately, but did do some key animation in Ping Pong episode 6.
Probably the most prolific of all these animators, Nonaka Masayuki started out at J.C Staff and produced a large volume of work for them on many of their main anime starting from 2009’s Hayate Gotoku. She did key animation for one episode of Yuruyuri in 2011 and then returned with a bigger presence in the second season in 2012. There’s a good chance this was a pivotal point in her career as well, since she went freelance around this time, and has since enjoyed constant work on a variety of different shows. She returned to work alongside Dogakobo for Love Lab in 3 episodes. She has a knack for embodying a very full, lively sense of movement in her animation, even when it is quite limited. Her characters seem to have this bouncy pep to them which means she fits in perfectly with this group.
Yoshida Kanako (Freelance?) (吉田奏子)
A quieter achiever of the bunch, Yoshida Kanako is a young key animator who seems to have been active for the past 5 years or so. She was involved with both seasons of Yuruyuri and since then she has also been a regular on Dogakobo anime, including 5 episodes of Love Lab (2 as an animator and 3 as an AD). She has an understated animation quality, which is a gentle kind of limited animation, creating soft yet lively and captivating movement. Her recent work on Ishuukan Friends has gained attention for this reason.
The Golden Episodes
What’s interesting is that this isn’t just a list of animators who worked on the same series, their efforts were concentrated in several key episodes. This means they directly worked with other on the series.
Dogakobo seem to have developed a very clear strategy in their scheduling which results in this particular clique of animators all working together in a concentrated set of episodes. In Yuruyuri season 2, it was episodes 1,6, 7 and 11 and in Love Lab it was episodes 1,3,5 and 12. It is no coincidence then, that these episodes are striking for their animation quality and intensity. Even to a fan who doesn’t know the first thing about animation, these episodes are clearly stand-out affairs, while the rest of the show is, mostly, simply ‘good quality’. To illustrate just how aligned these animators were for these episodes, I prepared this table:
As you can see, the episodes given to this team of animators are closely aligned with the episodes the series director and main writer worked on. It makes sense that the director would consider these key episodes and arrange the best staff. On top of the main staff, some good freelance animators were bought in for these episodes (e.g Kouno Megumi in episode 1). Episode 13 is probably an exception because it was more about the emotional payoff than the comedy and therefore required less eccentric animation. The episodes outside of this set are frequently more outsourced and, in the case of 6 and 7, required character designer Chiaki Nakamura to act as a chief animation director.
Also an interesting thing to note is that these four episodes (and only these four) had a ‘Production Advancement’ credit. The person credited with this is Dogakobo employee Umehara Shouta (梅原翔太). Given that there’s little internal information or interviews available with Dogakobo staff, it’s hard to determine his importance in all of this, but the fact is he is intrinsically linked with these animators.
He was credited with production advancement in those key episodes of Yuruyuri as well. In fact, in pretty much any case where Dogakobo assembles some of these animators, he has this credit. If you see his name attached to an episode, you know it’s going to be a good one! And it’s not just the internal staff, but the freelance animators who worked on these episodes also rarely work alongside Dogakobo except when Umehara is involved. But until I know more, I’ll stop short of saying he was key in scouting and assembling this staff, since it could just be that those key episodes require more overall oversight/collaboration work which requires him to act in this capacity.
Was it the director, Ohta who pulled these animators together for Yuruyuri and again for Love Lab? Or was it Dogakobo, through Umehara or otherwise? And who developed the approach of scheduling them all into a handful of episodes? I’d love to know more, but we’ll probably never know.
It was the unified effort of these guys that bought Love Lab to our screens with the kind of gusto and energy that made it such an entertaining series. Despite their short terms in the job, these younger animators have already shown they have a brash idiosyncratic style and the ability to beat par when it comes to the quality of their work. In an industry that seems to becoming increasingly fractured, with most young, talented animators going freelance quickly, it’s too rare to see a group like this being assembled.
Soon after Love Lab, all of these animators joined forces again for Dogakobo on the Mikakunin de Shinkoukei Music Video (which has 9 animators in total), which was a promotional video released prior to the show.
This video is a concentrated rush of exactly the kind of lively, fresh and surprising kind of animation they whipped up for Love Lab. It’s cutesy, boppy and fun in a way that I can’t really recall seeing elsewhere in anime. It’s probably their best work as a team so far, but I just hope it isn’t their group’s swan song.
Mikakunin de Shinkoukei itself featured only some of these animators on different episodes, and subsequent Dogakobo productions haven’t ‘bought the gang back together’ so to speak. Director Ohta Masahiko seems to have moved on, now releasing a new anime with Studio Pierrot as the animation studio. Meanwhile, Dogakobo is working on Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun. Since they’ll be essentially competing this season, I don’t see Dogakobo sharing its resources, so our only hope is for Shoujo Nozaki-kun to make an effort to reunite this Love Lab lot, freelancers included. It seems unlikely, but even if we don’t see them all working together again, I will be keeping an eye on their careers.
I thought of doing a new regular segment where I talk about an anime staffer who has really made an impression on me in the last month. The first lucky pick is Masaaki Yuasa for his work as the director/storyboarder/screenwriter of Ping Pong. Not all the MVP posts will be this long – it will just depend on the person and how much there is to discuss!
There’s no doubt in my mind that Ping Pong, currently airing on FujiTV’s Noitamina timeslot, is the best anime on TV right now. Having not read the original manga from esteemed author Taiyou Matsumoto upon which it’s based, I can’t speak for exactly how this works as an adaptation, nor to how much of its strengths come from the source material. But what I can say is that the end result is an exhilarating and poignant story realised with a peculiar intensity and gravitas that could only have come from one man: Masaaki Yuasa. This is just the latest step in an accelerated career decorated with achievements and acclaim, as an animator, a designer and as a director. Yuasa is one of the most influential and creatively charged players in the anime industry today, with a history of top-shelf anime under his director’s belt (such as Mind Game, Tatami Galaxy and Kaiba) and a trusted team of artists under his wing.
Make no mistake, no one but Yuasa and his flock could have rendered Ping Pong with the unique visual lustre, punchy sense of style and rough, yet charming production qualities. To celebrate that fact, let’s take a moment to venerate the man and his work. First, how exactly did Yuasa get on board the fast-track express ride to this pinnacle of an anime career? By being a driven, career focused ‘ideas man’ who found himself in a fortunate position early in his working life, basically. Even more simply, by being incredibly talented. But let’s tell the story.
Road of Yuasa
His interest in making things move through the medium of animation was first sparked by seeing Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro.
When entering the industry in the late 80s he chose to work at Asia-do because it was run by two animators he was inspired by, most notably Tsutomu Shibayama, whose animation when at A-Production he was a fan of. He was also keen to take part in the anime shorts that Asia-do often produced.
After leaving Asia-do in around 1992, he did a significant amount of animation work on Crayon Shin-chan, including animation directing credits. His involvement on Crayon Shin-chan was heightened by the receptiveness of its director to new ideas, which Yuasa had in no short supply.
Owing to this, he took charge of several short episodes focusing on a popular side character (Buriburizaemon’s Adventures), which was his first effort in scriptwriting and storyboarding. Even at this early stage, those episodes showcased an outstanding and unique approach.
He Collaborated with the enigmatic Shinya Ohira in the distinguished 1994 Hamaji’s Resurrection.
His penchant for anime with a more artistic bent became clearly visible with his work on Koji Morimoto’s Noiseman Sound Insect in 1997, and then in Tatsuo Satou’s Cat Soup a few years later.
This direction of his career culminated in the 2005 movie anime, Mind Game, which he was offered to direct. His involvement revolutionised the project and ultimately created a powerful and widely extolled film which cemented his status as a creatively uninhibited yet practically adroit director.
This led to him directing a series of memorable tv anime works in the years to come, all of which aired on Fuji TV’s noitamina timeslot, and all of which had its own dissonant variation on Yuasa’s style. It’s a testament to his skill as a director that he challenges himself with new approaches every anime, while still building upon a transient style that remains uniquely his.
On the front-foot with new avenues of production, Yuasa reached out globally to fans to create a new anime movie through kickstarter, called Kick Heart. The call to arms was overwhelmingly successful, raising the $200,000 to create the fun and quirky short film (it’s only 13 mins). This was probably the first significant anime project to have been born from kickstarter and is just one example of Yuasa’s pioneering temperament
It was after this project that he returned to his bread and butter, at the helm of a new Noitamina timeslot manga adaptation – Ping Pong! Altogether a more conventional anime, Ping Pong is still evidently the product of his artistic flare and prodigious handle on the director’s chair.
But, as with any great director, Yuasa doesn’t walk alone. Sharing this path to success are a number of close affiliates who are perhaps just as essential to bringing his anime to life with the pizazz we’ve come to expect. Let’s look at a few:
A South Korean female animator who studied animation in England before moving to Japan to enter the industry. EunYoung Choi attracted a lot of attention for her weird but captivating work on the pre-OP scene in Yuasa’s Kemonozume, episode 10 (which you can view here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l696kcAunhs). She subsequently worked on future Madhouse projects under Yuasa, with a rapidly increasing involvement – she directed/storyboarded/AD’d several episodes of Kaiba. Now that Yuasa appears to no longer be aligned with Madhouse (and let’s face it, who is?), she seems to have followed him to bigger and better things, being instrumental in the development of Kick Heart, and ultimately credited with assistant director with Ping Pong. Their close and strong working relationship is very clear – she often accompanies him on visits to conventions/events and regularly acts as translator for his western interviews. I’m sure she has played a big part in Yuasa’s worldly approach to making anime. Hiring foreign animators and communicating with overseas fans is probably a big reason why Yuasa’s work is often unique and evolutionary compared with the more insular, traditional industry.
Aymeric joined the Yuasa team with Kick Heart, and I have a suspicion that it was through EunYoung Choi. One reason being that he pulled a huge effort on Choi’s episode #9 of Space Dandy (drawing every single bit background art over 4 and half months), which didn’t actually have Yuasa’s involvement, suggesting a separate working relationship. Beyond that, it’s just a hunch. In any case, he was the art director and background artist for Kick Heart, and then the background artist for Ping Pong (there was no way he could draw all of those backgrounds himself!!). Aymeric worked on an uncommon preproduction facet for both Kick Heart and Ping Pong – colour scripts, which provide direction on the flow of colour throughout the anime. You can view his Kick Heart colour scripts here. Although Choi was credited with Color Coordination for Kick Heart, I feel like Kevin has really introduced a greater understanding of colour and more vibrancy into team-Yuasa’s works.
Michio Mihara is a dedicated animator and episode director with a truly fantastic career behind him, as a valuable mainstay of Satoshi Kon’s works, and with impressive work on other big anime films such as Jin-Roh, Princess Mononoke and Spriggan. He is well known amongst fans because he ran a column on anime-style (a well-known animator focus magazine). It was actually through this column that he wrote about EunYoung Choi and raised her profile. Although his accomplishments in the field of animation were well known, his raw creative excellence wasn’t truly discovered until he was given the chance to do all the key animation for episode 12 of Yuasa’s Kemonozume – a challenge that few animators are able to meet in the arena of modern anime. From then it seemed to be a tradition for Yuasa anime to feature a Mihara episode, as Kaiba and Kemonozume both offered highly praised Mihara episodes (in Kaiba he went even further and drew every single drawing, including in betweens). He was the animation bedrock of Kick Heart, being the character designer and sharing all the key animation between only himself and Choi. There is no doubt that he was a valuable associate of Yuasa, but there’s a theory that a falling out occurred between him and Choi (almost certainly over Kick Heart), which casts his future involvement with them in doubt.
Nobutake Ito is another experienced, premier animator who has worked on films such as Ghost in the Shell:Innocence, Summer Wars, Wolf Children, and most recently a new career pinnacle – storyboard, character design and animation on Production I.G Giovanni’s Island. His technical proficiency is well regarded, enough even to have been trusted by Mitsuo Iso to animation direct a good portion of his Denno Coil. But, in a similar story to Mihara, Ito’s creativity and flair was never seen so rawly and freely as in Yuasa’s works. Yuasa, perhaps after meeting him on the production of Cat Soup bought him on board for Mind Game, for which he animated probably the most thrilling sequence in the film – the final chase scene. From then on, he became a regular and vital presence on Yuasa’s shows, being the character designer, animation director and recurring animator on all of his TV anime outings – Kemonozume, Kaiba, Tatami Galaxy and now Ping Pong. With such a huge involvement, Nobutake Ito is probably the animation champion of the Yuasa team, and it’s doubtful that these shows would have looked nearly as good without the ardor and experience he brings with him.
Taking up a main animator role, Yasunori Miyazawa has been called in as a kind of main animator to all of Yuasa’s efforts since Kemonozume. Ever a rich source of finesse and expertise, Miyazawa is to thank for many of the more memorable and impressive animation sequences of all of his anime. This tradition has continued in Ping Pong, although I feel like a thin schedule has hampered his animation work this time! it appears he has less of a collaborator status than the others and more of the scenario where Yuasa respects his work and wants to keep him onboard for all his projects.
Originally starting out as an animator, his inventive and free work in animation, as well as his original interest in making things move still informs his approach to making anime today. It can be seen in the playful, unpolished animation and drawings you’ll find in all his works. It’s his belief that animation should be something enjoyable to do, allowing animators to express themselves through their work without the burden of stringently adhering to a clean character model and style. This is counter to the direction that the anime industry as a whole is going, and his anime certainly stand out for it, but in a good way. His corrugated lines and elegant roughness make for an unexpected kind of nuance and emotiveness and provides a platform for his staff to put their own ideas and efforts on display at their full potency.
But, while he is one of those directors with an animator origin story, he proved early on that he was brimming with ideas that extended far up into the production hierarchy and sprung quickly into the role of director. I believe he’s most effective in this director’s role – in assembling and harnessing talent, guiding the production of his anime and coming up with new big-picture ideas from the ground up. I’ve talked about how he can bring the best out of some of his notable animators and give them the opportunity to flaunt their individualistic craftsmanship. He’s also good at trying new things, like the fusion of live action footage and 2D animation in Mind Game and Tatami Galaxy, the kick-starter fundraising for Kick Heart, the purposefully under-planned antics of Kemonozume and through to writing and storyboarding every episode of Ping Pong himself.
There’s one big reason reason Yuasa is easily one of the most interesting directors in the industry today. There are many other directors out there who get a lot of attention and garner a fan following from their popular works but ultimately succumb to a rut of over-indulging in the comfort of their own stylistic devices and approaches (Hiroyuki Imaishi and Akiyuki Shinbo are my favourite examples of promising directors who fell into this trap). But Yuasa isn’t content to just sit back and not fix things that aren’t broken, but instead strikes me as the kind of creator who would rather risk breaking them to see what new things he can fashion from the debris. As a result, each of his works promises something fresh and exciting and stands out uniquely as a memorable anime in its own right, not just as another entry rolled out in the Yuasa series. Every project is treated as a challenge and every challenge is a story of growth for this rising director. With a team of imaginative and skilled writers, directors and animators surrounding him and a pioneering attitude, Yuasa is someone who we should all be looking to for great things going forward.
He recently gained another wave of attention overseas by guest handling an episode of the strangely popular cartoon, Adventure Time, so it might be hard to guess which direction his career is going to go. One thing that is assured is that he will be handling an episode of the second half of Space Dandy, so I’ll be keenly awaiting that!
I really feel like Ping Pong raised the bar to new heights with its latest offering
Ping Pong presents a surging, heaving swell of grudges, lifelong dreams, responsibilities, love, passion, and pride being stirred up by its entire cast, just waiting to break into uninhibited conflict. Although there have been minor clashes along the way, for example the upsets of Wenge vs Kazuma and Peco vs Sakuma, so far these motivations have mostly peacefully coexisted. Kazuma has been devotedly honing his skills and shouldering the ever increasing burden of redeeming his family name; Wenge has cast his pride aside and has put himself back to the hard work of training up; Peco has rekindled his childhood dream to make gold at the Olympics and is on an extreme up-skill regime; and Smile is silently honing his talent and reconciling his own reasons for winning. And it’s not just the players, the coaches behind them have their own hangups they’re fighting for. Exploring all these characters and what they’ve put on the line with ping pong has been the goal of this anime so far, and there’s an intensifying sense that something is brewing. Things are starting to gain a direction – they’re on a course for collision. Ping Pong has has had suspense and drama all throughout, but this episode sharply brings into focus the fact that the true meaning of the show will all be in the final meeting of these players across the net.
The episode also puts something else under the spotlight – that the core of this series is the friendship and inevitable rivalry between Smile and Peco. The other characters certainly flesh it out and explore the themes of what motivates people, but at the end of the day they’re more of a side-story. The narrative of Ping Ping has made itself clear – Smile will face Peco in an important career match and have to make a choice between listening to his coach and his friends and do whats necessary to win, or standing aside to let Peco go on towards his goal. The parallel’s drawn between Smile and his coach were undeniable, as was the flag of Peco having his leg wrapped. History will repeat itself, and Peco will be injured when he’s matched with Smile. That choice facing Smile is the crux of this series and the morale of the story will be about the meaning of winning. What I can’t predict is what Smile will choose: to win or to lose. If I had to guess at this point it would be ‘to win’, simply because it would feel too predictable otherwise.
We’re seeing real pay-off here from Yuasa’s hands-on, DIY approach to writing/storyboarding each episode. Far from getting tired, he seems to be improving with every episode. This week felt like it had more visual depth and precise pacing than ever before. Every scene had a bite of humour, emotion or tension to it, and there was a pervasive atmosphere throughout. It felt like there were less incongruous moments of animation and more coherency to the rough art style. Combined with the sleek, emotive music, the show’s production was punchier than ever, and as close to beauty as it has ever been. I can now put my concerns about the schedule aside, it’s kept up. But I am hoping to see some animator big guns to come out for the final matches of the show
I thought this was interesting -this is the color script for the first episode. Every episode has its own color script and the intention is to guide the flow of color throughout the episode. Masaaki Yuasa’s works have always had a strong focus on color and this is definitely a major part of that. I think it’s rare for an anime to use this pre-production step, but it seems to be a signature of his. The color scripts for Kick Heart were posted online on the kickstarter page https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/production-ig/masaaki-yuasas-kick-heart/posts/330918. As with Kick Heart, they would have been painted, based on Yuasa’s storyboard, by the series art director and close collaborator Kevin Aymeric. He recently gained attention for drawing every single background in Yuasa’s episode of Space Dandy (episode 9) himself. It’s clear that he’s a creative force to be reckoned with and a valuable addition to the Yuasa ‘team’.