It was late at night after a long week. Lying on the couch with my partner powering through a few episodes of anime, my eyes were starting to close on their own as sleep overcame me. It was at this point that I was introduced to the 13th episode of the boisterous TV anime adaptation of Needless. Suddenly I was wide awake, eyes pried open and fixated to the screen. Right off the bat, there was something very different about this episode, something uniquely exhilarating.
I didn’t know this going in, but when I looked up the staff after the episode finished I was astounded to see that the episode was pretty much the handiwork of just two people, and those creators were none other than the devious duo of Seiya Numata and Kyuuta Sakai!
Before Seiya Numata was swallowed into the eternal pit of no escape that is Milky Holmes, he was a star animator making waves across the industry with attention-grabbing cuts on a myriad of works such as Tora Dora, Gurren Lagann and Higurashi. His ability to pull of dynamic action made him a popular choice for handling fight sequences. His scenes often divided opinions due to his unusual style, but he certainly made a name for himself. His fight from Toradora turned a lot of heads.
Personally I’ve never really been a huge fan of his brand of animation style with its gelatinous warping and stretching, but I admire his magnetism as an animator. He is a devotee of the original charisma animator Yoshinori Kanada, frequently referencing his work and chasing a kindred creative freedom. Alongside Jun Arai, he forms a central pillar to Needless’s aesthetic, which is an uninhibited ode to Kanada and his epoch. Numata exerted a lot of influence with the role of ‘Design Works’ throughout the show as well as ‘Technical Director’.
And it’s difficult to talk about Numata without mentioning Kyuuta Sakai, his sister-in-arms who he brought into most of his projects around this time and has a strong personal friendship with. Sakai is probably a name fresh in most people’s minds as she is the accomplished character designer for the brand new hit Re:Zero. She is now pretty much exclusively a character designer/chief animation director and thrives as an illustrator.
Probably a key uniting factor between the two is their shared fondness for drawing sexy young girls, and the term ‘lolimator’ was coined for them during their days together. If you don’t believe me, the first Needless ED, also featured in this episode is their work and one of the most carnal, intoxicating hits of fanservice I have ever been fortunate enough to witness.
Before Sakai went to White Fox with her work on Steins;Gate, these two were inseparable, and this episode of Needless is one of the best things to come from their early union. The episode is directed and storyboarded by Numata, and, excluding oversight from the chief animation director, entirely and exclusively key-animated by the two of them. It’s a concentrated hit of the Numata and Sakai pair!
As a result, the episode stands out clearly from all the others. Numata’s storyboard and direction immediately make an impact, forgoing convention to deliver an episode that is uniquely tense and weirdly intimate. Numata takes the idea of a stage-play approach and runs with it, focusing on the dialogue and expressions of the characters to the exclusion of all else. There’s no attempt to hide this approach – the episode opens with the room darkened like a stage and all the characters placed under a literal spotlight. Many cuts are plane with an audience line of site, and dramatic lighting is abused like nothing else.
The style actually reminds me of early Akiyuki Shinbou with it’s Ikuhara-esque shots and focus on striking colour design. Numata applied bold neon colouring to many of his sense to deliver the sense of exaggerated drama and also a cool-factor. Some of the shots definitely delivered.
In addition to the darkness enshrouding the scene and the striking lighting, Numata applies a focus on intense facial expressions in close-up which includes detail such as sweat forming and rolling down people’s faces. This all makes for a potent sense of tension and claustrophobia despite the vast open room the events occur within. The moment in which the main villain makes his entrance in particular casts a palpable sense of dread making for one of the most suspenseful moments Needless ever had.
The animation itself is surprisingly active given the fact that it was only key animated by the two of them. Numata works his usual magic with the action highlight that features frenetic movement, spinning camerawork and distorted drawings to ram-home a sense of force. The portion of the fight that is completely upside down is one of those quirky moments that really defines Needless.
One of his most memorable cuts from the episode is not from an action scene but rather this pretty inexplicable cut of Setsuna’s nose bursting into a nosebleed with the intense rage overcoming her. This is an example of Numata’s contorted style works really well as her face twists into this sharp glare of focused fury. I challenge you to find my an anime character looking more angry than this.
The cuts that were presumably handled by Sakai meanwhile were simple fluid animation. The smooth moments stood out to help build up the sense of excitement and differentiate the episode from the normal limited kanada-school style of the rest of the series. There’s also this indescribable sense of style to her movements. Stepping up to being a prolific animation director indicates that she was a powerhouse animator back in her day on the front lines. She apparently has a special skill where she holds both pencil and colour pencil in the one hand and can swiftly use the colour pencil to add shadow lines.
My rewatch of Needless has been an enjoyable affair on the whole, but this episode turned it up a notch, from mildly bemusing to genuinely exciting. Seiya Numata’s unconventional design sense and bold stage-play approach combined with the animation goods delivered by partner-in-crime Sakai make this a grandstand episode.
This episode is not only one of the most condensed examples of Numata and Sakai working together, especially when you include the ED that was exclusively handled by them, but it also appears to be the climax of Numata’s extensive involvement in the series with no major credits on any episode thereafter. He is technical director and a design contributor on the show throughout, but no front-line involvement as an animator. Beyond just Needless this is the most interesting work I have seen of Numata’s in terms of storytelling and direction.
Sometimes an anime struts along that is charismatic from beginning to end, a complete package that is so much more than the some of its parts . And sometimes a more run-of-the-mill series can break form and produce a wondrous episode that you can neatly lift out and up onto a pedestal. But once in a while this glory lasts only a fleeting moment – a shot, a cut or a scene that punches through and reaches a short-lived apex. These posts are dedicated to those honorary instants.
I have already lauded the animation power of Mob Pscyho through my reviews of its standout episodes 1 and 8, but there was a particular beat in episode 10 that stretched my jaw to the floor. I’m talking, of course, about the fire scene. Fire is one of those raw, innate pillars of effect animation that we have all been exposed to many times over our years of service in the anime fandom. Alongside water, lightning and smoke, fire has been the pursuit of many a talented animator and it’s tempting to think it’s been rendered in every possible way already. From the sparse and boldly coloured forms of Yoshinori Kanada and Masahito Yamsahita’s flames to the intense realism of Mitsuo Iso’s carefully crafted billowing fire, this is a field with a rich creative history. Yoshinori Kanada’s fire dragon is one of the most iconic, oft-homaged pieces of animation ever created.
So it’s rare that quality fire animation can jump out and make an impression these days. It certainly did here. This sequence, lasting only a couple of minutes, stole the show! The roaring, intense heat of the fire enveloping the characters, and at times the whole screen, could really be felt. And it’s not just the way the fire looked and moved in any conventional sense – it’s the way it really felt like it was sucking the characters in to this epicenter of unimaginable inferno, whipping around them and blasting them like a furious storm.
The opening cut, handled by animator Kazuto Arai exemplifies this, with the fire bursting down the hallway and washing over Terada drowning him, and soon the audience, in a sea of heat. The aqueous movement of the fire was very deliberate, with the animator using shots of the crashing waves of the ocean for reference.
Straight after that we’re into the more sketchy style with more conventional flickering flame motion. After being awash with flames we’re now in the hearth, surrounding by burning flame. This part is more conventional but straddles a good balance between realism and animation abstraction and has a more classically ‘mob psycho’ feel to it with its rough pencil lines.
The next shot is distinctly digital genga apparently from web-gen animator, Shin Ogasawara. I have always had a soft-spot for web-gen effects animation. The fact that is is digitally drawn means that it is not drawn with lines forming shapes but directly painted with digital brushes. This means that it’s so much easier to create fluid and intricate effects animation such as splashing colours and leaping sparks. This strength of digital animation is used to good effect here creating a layered and fast shot of the fire that helps to convey its intensity.
And finally the inferno retreats to a fireball as Terada entraps his opponent. This is the best animation of the scene, with fine, detailed linework and a swirling, pulsating movement that’s so reminiscent of Hironori Tanaka that it’s thought to be uncredited work from him. He has a habit of going credit bare on many series, so it would not surprise me for him to turn up here. The tail end of this fireball scene raises the bar again, however, with a segment that is a cut above the rest in terms of intensity.
Although the movement and linework is similar to the previous gif, can you feel the difference in animation power? There’s just something more visceral and violent about this fire; it burns brighter and with more fury. Although there’s definitely still clear defined grades of colour, the linework is less crisp, instead the colours flow into each other in an undulating blur of heat. This is probably as close as you can get to actually being burnt watching anime. The depiction of the figure within the flames is also different, less fine lines and more thick, dirty graphite flickering out of form. I sense the magic of Kameda here. Although he’s not credited with genga this episode, there’s something about the scrawled figure and the ashy debri after the fireball dissipates that makes me wonder! Perhaps he just supervised this part of Tanaka’s (or whoever it was) work.
But what is so interesting about this is that this furnace was depicted by so many animators. In your typical anime this whole sequence would be probably be given to an effects animator specialist and that one animator would create the whole feel of the fire. But Mob Psycho’s mantra is to use different anime styles and techniques to keep the audience on their toes, never knowing what the visuals are going to do next. I suspect the choice to split this up and let several animators realise their own creative ideas of how the fire should look was very deliberate.
Arai gave the feeling of suddenly being overwhelmed with his crashing wave of heat, Ogasawara depicted its powerful speed while the animators of the fireball sequence, whoever these nameless heroes may be, really ramped the intensity up to the next level.
Yoshimichi Kameda is undoubtedly the pedestal animation force behind this series. Although he was responsible for the character design, he did not take up the credit of chief animation director that usually accompanies this. Generally the chief animation director is the single overruling source of truth for close-ups and facial shots of their character designs so they spend their time furiously correcting and supervising the work of the episode animation supervisors below them throughout the whole show. For a series like New Game, the precise appeal of the beautiful characters is a major selling point, making this role critical. Mob Psycho has no such aspiration, instead Kameda’s drive for the series was to allow it to thrive on chaos and disorder, whipping a cacophony of different animation styles into a charismatic chorus, a heaving, messy swell of excitement. He is best placed to do this closer to the front lines; serving as animation director for an episode allows him to supervise the animation, not just the drawings.
Episode 8 is the only episode since the first that he taken up arms, to orchestrate the animation of a Mob Psycho episode. The results are astounding. Much like the greatest of the great charismatic animators before him, Kameda has again surpassed expectations, blowing to pieces the conventional anime style and making it his toy.
Kameda has proven himself a great animation director because he has been able to weave each of the animator’s individual styles into a cohesive tapestry of animation. In my view, there is no one grand-standing piece of animation – all of the more prominent animators’ styles are celebrated with equal gusto. Usually when you get a charismatic animator on an episode, their segment stands out like a sore thumb. This episode makes it into my list of greats because only a show like Mob Psycho with an animation director like Yoshimichi Kameda could we get an episode so invigoratingly animated that the individuality of the animation doesn’t feel at all idiosyncratic.
Both in terms of his drawings and his movements, Kameda’s animation style is rough, gritty and visceral. In his break-out work on Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, that grit, that rawness made the sequence where Roy Mustang incinerated a certain character (spoiler dodge!) unforgettable. It took the glamour out of death and perfectly reflected his vengeful frame of mind. In Mob Psycho, Kameda’s roughness both compliments the playfully dirty design manifesto of the series but also, more importantly, takes the glamour out of his battle sequences. While other shows portray sleek, cool fights, Mob Psycho degrades and brutalises those involved in the skirmishes. This plays nicely into Mob’s stand-point of not wanting to fight and hurt others.
Kameda obtains this roughness in his work through a variety of techniques, including the use of an Ukiyo-e brush and rough pencil work. One thing is for sure, his genga are the anything but clean:
Let’s see CG do this!!!
This style has clearly been imparted to the key animators who worked on this episode, who have implemented it in different ways. Bold, brush-like lines, sketchy pencil marks, scraggly linework and dirty smears are pervasive throughout the episode. There are several moments that nail the style so perfectly that you get the sense that Kameda made divine intervention as supervisor and roughed up the genga himself. Such moments are fleeting but very carefully interspersed at impact moments throughout the action so that you feel the force of Kameda without him betraying the style of the key animator.
Probably the tidbit of animation that grabbed me the most this episode was this:
The way the hackled lines undulate with a kind of electric energy, as if yearning to explode into formless scrawl is a powerful statement of Mob’s wrath. Again, I feel Kameda’s hand in this but I’d love to know how this cut turned out this way! Sakugabooru has it included as part of Yutaka Nakamura’s scene, but I can’t be sure.
I was fascinated to see Yuuto Kaneko at the top of the genga list for the episode (meaning he contributed the most). Kaneko is one of the most ascendant young animators associated with studio Trigger who came onboard as part of the Little Witch Academia training project after jumping ship from GAINAX. He proved himself by becoming a core animator on Kill la Kill, and reaching the status of a stand-out animator on Kiznaiver and Luluco. He also contributed to episode 3, but this is in my view his best work to date. In particular, this sequence was astounding.
Although much noise has been made about Yutaka Nakamura’s piece at the climax of the fight, this segment was perhaps more interesting animation wise, the rough deformation and sketchiness of it being classically Mob Psycho. Kaneko has adopted a strength from his Trigger brethren Akira Amemiya and Imaishi that plays neatly into Kameda’s aesthetic – the crayon-like thick lines, chalky effect dashes and pencil scrawled smears are incorporated into his animation to spectacular effect this episode.
Another segment that caught my eye was likely by Akira Yamashita (presumed so because he tweeted about drawing the delinquents with a picture of a particular pose). If this is is indeed his work, it’s also very impressive and revels well in the dirty feel of the episode. The crass contortions of the faces is so fun to watch in motion and his drawings feature a lot of rough line detail and charcoal style.
Of course, I can’t forget to mention the climactic finish to the sequence, handled by none other than Bones resident star animator Yutaka Nakamura. Nakamura rarely fails to produce exhilarating animation, and this is far from an exception, with some smooth background animation, an explosion of effects and weighty, realistic kinetics as Mob throws his opponent down. To top it off there’s a fade to formless sketch as mob’s fury hits its pinnacle.
Topping the web-generation episode 5, this takes the cake for being the best animated episode of Mob Psycho and even managed to squeeze in our first taste of legitimate plot with the introduction of the evil organisation, Claw. I am not expecting that crown to be passed on until the final episode, which will almost certainly be spearheaded by Kameda again and sit in BONES’ all-out sakuga finale hall of fame. Key Animation：
In simple terms, what you see when watching an anime is the culmination of two different visual elements – the animation, which is the things that move, and the art, which is the static backdrop. After the director approves the layout for a cut, which is like the rough blueprint of how each shot will look, the anime production model generally splits these elements into two separate streams, with both the animation production and the art department using the layout as the basis to develop their side of it. The person responsible for delivering the art is credited as Art Director, usually a series-wide role. The art is often hand-painted on large sheets using a variety of techniques or is sometimes drawn digitally.
When complete and scanned digitally, the two streams are reunited by the photography/compositing stage of production which will then lead into any finishing effects work. Why am I telling you this? Because this season two anime in particular made me break my usual focus on animation appreciation and made me take a good hard look at the other side of the fence. They made me, dammit!
The two anime in question are Orange and Prisma Ilya 3rei Hertz, and their art snatched my attention for totally opposite reasons. Put frankly, those reasons are that Illya was utterly pathetic while Orange is very good. But before I get into kicking heads and patting backs on these two, I want to speak more generally on how anime uses background art.
Anime has been traditionally known as being geared towards effective layouts rather than pure animation and one of the ways this manifests is in a strong focus on the art stream. Anime considered to be ‘high quality’ and anime with large budgets also tend to have high-quality background art. Movies such as Miyazaki’s Ghibli outings, down to television anime like Attack on Titan or even Kill la Kill create rich, attractive works of art as a canvas for their animation. If you want to ogle at such high-grade backgrounds, head over to http://anime-backgrounds.tumblr.com/, from which I pinched some examples:
In some cases, the background art is given even more attention, becoming a driving artistic component of the series. A good example of this is Ghost in the Shell, where Mamoru Oshii ensured that every deeply detailed background helped build the richly textured and absorbing near-future world of the story. In Revolutionary Girl Utena director Kunihiko Ikuhara’s entangled his backgrounds with his narrative, using abstraction, architecture and visual metaphor to speak to the audience. This striking use of background art has become a defining trait of his.
Generally speaking, anime can at least put out settings and background art that act as an unobtrusive back-drop. Mediocre series from several prolific studios take this route, producing basic, bland still art that’s almost schematic in nature. When they need a house in the background it’s just a house; the backgrounds are technically not lacking but do not portray a lived-in and realistic feeling or any sense of artistic beauty or creativity. This kind of art direction is doing its job if you don’t notice it at all.
I’ve only rarely seen anime with art poor enough to actually make itself jump out at you for the wrong reasons, and when it happens it’s like a rude slap in the face, totally taking you out of the scene. The anime slapping me without restraint this season is Illya. It first hit me when Illya and friends walk into Miyu’s beachside ‘mansion’.
I say mansion, but it actually looks like more of a repurposed storage warehouse decorated by a photoshop artist. This is the kind of ugly monstrosity of a house I probably designed in The Sims when I was a kid. This vast, empty entrance hall with its absolutely illogical design and awkward symmetry actually gave off an unsettling surreal feeling. For what purpose would such a room have been designed? An amphitheatre-like internal balcony, spare of all furniture save for a single cupboard, the lack of decoration, the fact there are no supporting columns, the placement of the rooms, it’s all so unnatural. I could go on, but I think it’s pretty clear that no one would build a house like this.
It’s also clear that the artist who did it copied and pasted objects into some kind of 3D schematic instead of drawing it. The windows, doors and railing posts are all identical, even down to the shading. That process isn’t intrinsically a bad thing, but it is when it is so glaringly evident as this. The castle of the Ainsworth family is just as bad, only on a much grander scale:
Every part of it looks like it’s been copied from another part and I don’t believe for a second that anyone with such extreme wealth would build a castle so ugly and lacking in any kind of architectural personality. Maybe they could only afford a kit-home castle. Gross.
By the time later episodes introduced the snow-laden abandoned school I was legitimately disturbed by what I saw:
You’ll need to click through to the full size images for these ones to see the problems:
On top of that, the layouts are totally dull and uninspired, seemingly framing scenes in such a way as to make the background art and composition job as simple as possible. Wherever they can, scenes are made flat, straight and symmetrical, often lined up with one or more structural geometries in the backgrounds. There is a clear attempt to avoid any difficult three-dimensional perspectives.
The composition and touch-up in post-production also seems intent on doing as little work as possible, with no interesting shadow, glare, glint or transparency effects being used. Illya has wowed me with its action animation in the past, and it usually animates itself passably, but if you look past the cute girls for a moment you’ll realise it’s a very ugly series.
Fortunately, the anime Orange achieved the opposite, bringing genuine beauty to the realistic setting of mountain-straddling urban Japan that borders on breathtaking at times.
Orange is also set in and around a Japanese school, which makes it all the more easy to compare and contrast with Illya’s abominable attempt.The difference is gobsmacking because Orange’s setting actually looks like a school rather than an unfinished soviet war prison.
Notice a few key points on Orange’s art:
You can see through the windows into the room detail.
The windows show reflection and glare.
The curtains are actually slightly transparent and they are all drawn at slightly different positions, kind of like how they would be IN REALITY.
The ground isn’t just a flat concrete texture as far as the eye can see but has stains, marks, manholes, joints, etc.
There is glare of harsh sunlight and shadows cast naturally throughout all of the background objects rather than starkly applied only when a cel or object clearly calls for it. The absence of sun or shadow in Illya’s world is a big part of how lifeless it feels.
All of the signs, noticeboards etc are not copied in from some other templates but drawn as part of the background.
The scenes are often shot at interesting angles not aligned dead-on with building edges and faces.
The blackboards have clear chalk-rub smears.
I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Orange good, Illya bad.
The man in charge of Illya’s art is Hiroshi Morikawa, associated with Studio Kaimu, who has an extensive history generating backgrounds but is brand new to the role of art director. This is a change – Takeshi Tateishi, associated with the preferable Studio Tulip, handled the previous two seasons. A note on Takeshi – he has two ANN entries (1 , 2) but is actually the one person.
The change is certainly noticeable – although IIlya has always had the same kind of approach to art direction, in this latest season it has demonstrably fallen in terms of quality. The episode credits for background art reveal that it’s largely handled by three studios, the aforementioned Kaimu, and the Korean companies DR MOVIE and GACHI PRODUCTION. The involvement of DR MOVIE and GACHI PRODUCTION doesn’t say a lot in and of itself, as they are widespread in the industry and are secondary artists supporting Kaimu (GACHI PRODUCTION even had a hand in production art on an Orange episode). However, the last time Morikawa, Kaimu and these two companies comprised the art department for a series was Subete ga F ni Naru and that show had similarly bland background work.
This time, Morikawa has been elevated from just a background artist to the art director. I also suspect that, as Illya’s Studio Kaimu credits lists no names under it, it largely refers to Morikawa himself. A stretched one-man lead background artist with no experienced art director oversight and only offshore companies to back him up is a recipe for disaster.
Was the change in art direction to try and tackle the alternate winter world in a different way? Maybe. To be fair to Morikawa, the few ‘money-shot’ depictions of snow-covered forests didn’t look too shabby. Or perhaps it was an economic measure. I suspect Morikawa comes cheap, given his obvious skill for copying and pasting objects, stretching textures and using few staff. This would certainly save a lot of effort and time compared to hand painted artworks such as those used on Orange. Whatever the reason, it backfired and it’s a bad look for directors Masato Jinbo and Shin Oonuma. The higher-ups of the Illya franchise need to have a good hard think about whether they still care about the series or not, because it sure looks like they don’t.
At the end of the day here, the real difference is that the art direction in Orange is geared toward a fine art approach, which is probably considered to be the norm for anime. It’s particularly good at it, but it’s not the talent of the artists behind this show that so starkly differentiates it from Illya – the fact is that Illya takes a wholly different approach. Illya’s art direction is about constructing a perfunctory back-drop – it just has to be a place with the requisite details and objects present. The episode director asks for a scene in a school and he gets the bare-bones recognition level school we see. There’s no art in it at all, it does not portray a world or support the atmosphere of the show, it’s just there. However this season of Illya is even worse – it’s not ‘just there’, it’s glaringly, overwhelmingly bad.
Phew, that was close! I was almost a tragic victim of irony. You see, I was just about to sit down and polish off a new blog post extolling the 2D hand-drawn mecha animation and surprising levels of enjoyment I was getting out of Regalia: The Three Sacred Stars when BAM, the show’s production committee dropped the bomb. They announced that they are taking the extreme measure of suspending the broadcast of the series after episode 4, delaying the release of the blu-ray and planning to re-air the series from the beginning again in September. Their reason? They didn’t feel that the show was meeting the quality that they wanted to deliver. If even the show’s own production committee gave their show a bad review, I’d feel a bit silly holding a favourable opinion.
That said, I thought I’d have a look around Japanese blogs and see if they were as scathing as the series’ sponsors. I found a lot of comments about the story being confusing, sure, but there was no chorus of controversy, no outrage. Fans of moe were responding amicably to the cute girls of the series, and fans of mecha animation seemed to be quite impressed by the fact that they were pulling off hand-drawn mecha. I don’t think anyone had delusions that this was more than a mediocre outing, but it seemed to entertain. It entertained me for the same reasons: cute girls and cool mecha. There are certainly worse shows airing right now both in terms of animation quality (D Gray man Hollow) and writing (QUALDEA CODE).
The fact that this wasn’t a response to any backlash from fans makes the already rare move of intervention from the committee all the more surprising. To be sure, there were signs of a schedule that was beginning to falter, a danger flag this early in the series. The series is split quite neatly into two streams, character animation helmed by Kimitake Nishio and Kentaro Tokiwa and mecha animation handled by Kanta Suzuki. While the mecha animation appeared to be going strong, and I’ll get into that a bit more later, the character animation was showing the symptoms: jittery movement belying a lack of in-between animation, occasional poor drawings slipping into the key animation, bad compositing and lazy layouts. The signs were there but it hadn’t yet hit the tipping point into the dark place of missing cuts and glaringly unfinished animation.
The only way I can reconcile this play by the committee is that the symptoms didn’t fully indicate the extent of the problem. Perhaps they bent over backwards just to get this episode complete and the schedule ran away from them to the point where the next few episodes would have been rendered unairable. But even then, schedule hell is not a rare thing in the unforgiving world of TV anime.
Most anime in this situation take the hit of one or two very bad episodes to try scramble back into a feasible timeline. Even big-name shows like Shingeki no Kyoujin suffered this fate, with many cuts in important action sequences replaced by shots of background art. Ping Pong aired an episode with several missing cuts, and there are many other examples of this happening. But they usually fight tooth and nail to get the episode on air and make it work somehow. This is probably because TV timeslots in Japan cost money – skipping a week isn’t just an inconvenience to the audience, it’s a hit to the proverbial wallet of the sponsors. Regalia may have been able to wrangle a less disastrous deal with the TV stations, but it’s still a very big decision to take it off air, especially for this amount of time.
Given that so many other series have continued to linger on television blissfully unaware of the fact that they’re terrible, why the punitive measures from the committee, and why go so far as to blame the poor quality of the episodes aired to date? If I put my cynicism aside for a moment I wonder if there is some sincerity behind the announcement, perhaps the production committee had high hopes for a great anime and their pride forced their hand. It’s probably the right decision, but it’s certainly a brave one and almost certainly an expensive one.
There’s another mystery here and that is, where did it all go wrong? Sure, anime schedules often end up on a knife’s edge, but this looks more like a fundamental quality issue rather than a lack of time – something is not working right in the core production staff. The main producer, 永谷敬之 (Takayuki Nagatani) went to twitter to clarify the committee’s vague comments about ‘poor quality’ and revealed the following:
The issue is not with the story, which will remain fundamentally the same aside from some new scenes
The problems are in the quality control of the animation quality, the production area, and the sound direction.
I think this sort to clear up a general confusion among fans that perhaps the story was to blame, since it seemed confusing and many of those fans weren’t too phased over the animation standard. It’s interesting that sound direction was specifically called out – I noticed a number of viewers found the sound effects a bit of an earful. They certainly leaped out at you more than many other series, with loud, offensive scraping and crushing noises being slung around during the action sequences. Personally I thought they were refreshing as they really sounded like unnatural, giant contorting hunks of metal. I think I might be alone on that, just me and the sound effects creator Yasumasu Koyama, or sound director Yoshikazu Iwanami. Oddly enough, these two guys are some of the most pervasive sound staff in the business, so much so that they were both given cameos in Shirobako.
I think the key point he wanted to make is that this isn’t about being punitive and playing the blame game – there is an overarching problem with the production not one staff member.
One person who definitely can’t be blamed and can walk away from the show with his head held high: mechanical designer/animation director Kanta Suzuki. With a background as a notable action animator and successful mecha designer/animator, Suzuki has an increasingly rare gift in handling hand-drawn mecha. His mecha sequences in the first three episodes have all been exhilarating and brought some new to the table. Seeped in homages, and even bringing in some old-school talent such as the superb Masahito Yamashita, he has well and truly tackled the task of animating hand-drawn mecha and pinned it to the ground in forceful submission.
There is the possibility that he spent too long on these first few episodes and thereby doomed the schedule, but I see no evidence of that.
Of course, the director is ultimately responsible for the work. I suspect that Director Susumo Tosaka lacked the experience or talent to bring a show to life that had ambitious elements like 2D mecha. His only previous work at the show-wide level was ‘Series Director’ on Infinite Stratos 2. I thought Infinite Stratos 2 was terrible, and he wasn’t even the highest ranked director for the series with oversight by Yasuhito Kikuchi. With such a limited resume, it’s a wonder how he was given the opportunity to direct an original anime like this.
It’s pure speculation, but my guess is that the two chief animation directors were at the very least perfunctory in their roles but the director did not handle the reigns of communication, collaboration and organisation inherit in animation production. The lack of in-between animation, and poor polish in post-production are, to my mind, signs of a director without control. It may be telling that the director did not make comment or announcement himself, perhaps suggesting that it is not a decision he made or pushed for.
At the end of the day though, Regalia was not a show that was a failure in the eyes of many viewers, so I can only see the decision from the producers to postpone and revise it as a bold move to save the show born out of a want to make it a good anime rather than a mediocre one. I’ll raise my glass to that! Although I only mildly enjoyed the show thus far, I will definitely be awaiting its return in September, with corrected animation, improved production values and, probably some changes to production/direction staff. When it comes back, I’ll write about the mecha animation!
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).