https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/TIcxO_Mysq0UXFgc_FYqlCdsRGBpuv6rcXivc3vsSpNHq2cc5DC_7dL1cxaFeYUiWhgJxVpg26q8wsMrDeaTRfuEElalOK2sR-wGmxzSecOu38rusxB7S-om8qkDX0bCbg

Love Lab is a romantic school comedy based on a four-panel manga straight from the pen-hand of Ruri Miyahara. The premise is simple – the student council at a respectable all-girls are drawn into their president’s whirlwind of naive romance fantasies, ultimately becoming a club for practicing at the art of finding love. At first it didn’t sound like it was worth the effort of giving a go, but I think fate must have been at play; I ended up stumbling into it anyway, and, when I did stumble into it, I fell head over heels in love. Yep, as it turns out, Love Lab has a hell of a lot more going for it than its synopsis belies. Beneath that thin veneer of been-done romantic comedy genre clone, Love Lab has a beating heart and a healthy pulse. Its characters are earnest and charming, its jokes are genuinely funny, and its production is unexpectedly fresh and energised. Make no mistake, this is one of those series that just has something about it, a spring in its step, a glint in its eye, a certain buzz that makes it feel really alive. At its best, Love Lab is totally irresistible and kind of electric to watch. But don’t take my word for it, please go check it out!

Even if you don’t, let’s take a look at why it turned out the way it did; why wasn’t Love Lab just another cute-girls-messing-around-in-school comedy destined to be relegated to the bargain bin of forgotten mediocrity? Maybe it’s the exemplary voice acting work of the main cast (especially Chinatsu Akasaki as the elegant and lovably weird Maki ). Maybe it’s because it was spearheaded by perhaps the most notable director-writer duo of the anime industry’s comedy corner: director Ohta Masahiko and writer Aoshima Takashi. Bordering on not actually being separate people, Aoshima has been the series composer and main writer for every last one of Ohta’s works. Together, they had left a string of well-received comedy series in their wake by this point, from Minami-ke, through to Mitsudomoe and Yuruyuri. Aoshima is a natural at writing scripts that juggle comedy and endearing characters and stories, which definitely comes through here. Ohta meanwhile is known for the extra-animated, energetic visual comedy he often puts into his work.

But never have these two struck success as they did with the breakaway hit Yuruyuri. Why? I would argue that it’s because of the group of animators that was assembled across that show’s two seasons who were able to go that extra mile in injecting fun and interesting animation. Ohta’s other shows certainly have memorable moments of animation, but not with the intensity or pizazz of Yuruyuri. That same team were reunited for Love Lab a year later and in their resurgence they pushed the quality and charisma of their animation to new heights! Many anime out there have exceptional voice acting and solid scripts, but fewer can compete with Love Lab when it comes to the vigour and personality of their animation.

The Animation of Love Lab

If you think of the directors and the writers as building the frame, then the animators are the ones that put in all the hand-made details and final touches. It’s their finish which can either make or break an anime which is good by design. Love Lab was one of the fortunate ones, with an enamoring animation quality that really made the anime the engrossing and fun series that it was.

https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/ABfu29HEzygY3viJSohCaQwtyjGrnnJ4_jETRSYwtVWtF6fUSmVNgGWrCv1_Yt3aeEQ1EKQ0LaP4I6BkSEBttWApo_sAkO-sxo_xVaYb7jmGpyJqIXNWTiDLv6u5FZq7uA https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/YrDq4nwnROQq_nLSnsZY9uFmqtyhpuEYFAjTzP4miz9cFAaPUt-0tK2ynX7MR5jbT1Lm0uDBo2e8cI9Cvjfgud23wgzlUAvJHr82TNpgTz0L8pMfGf9-DbY0LX8bdi4xvQ

https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/y3fHxazmUb2XnMaiCtW4_UorWraB-drZbPL6DNpKJw8Fcy9fGdzMIVCViT6pDQfoVssbLHku0qxDcsh-U6N8HO8FJmbDVVsg01S0ouZfQ_-W5qpgD1MCeP0ZlZzLG_-9QQ https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/uKeLzOLuOI6pP1Rheg_UAFa83UmX_1YhYlwAKcJOJjlCW8re0bk_zxghGPNKFGnXusCHYYu6ZHS7mAqB8W1rZiZVqRNbVlKuvvBhzYKK7UmuXQ43mRDQ_mYHmObI_PeaBg

https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/epKUla-W46AnNZHTf43vuj9jJD3R885pxn5OviZ97VLxcF9NhZpcsM-vKdXUxFozUlCT9-h4TYvPg8UPns05MfR5LqjoPWhcMzF-g8Xfx-GGduUGl_p1tWOcXuIuQrNJ2Q https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/RBIvqZ98t-NLi9k_a3sQCPvYyjVXNpakMvrrNKpDuXIzIILgY61vKtdrOC4Axwg9He-uYa0K0Sod-oUvfz9HGx_XB-WrYj3iFa7FgyMhaniNBJ08gMpmDIvA59FA78SQXw

https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/bza9al7kvkNUWijav22St-5jwmXyDlRBXizU78stpRosTLCZ7MhMddgU1QleYv24uaK3mhfOcA1nMffKUcqlbdtCt-EmtscLkL-r_r4t2gM4fTV5c7SHgz7mDZiQfr96Yg https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/JrLKEPTqBMSN-_fF8bdPSDQwU8birLsV-NX4pmVqCSHqxs_wJkbCXvoneopM5LfycyJCetXczm2pCWk_EbMml9or7BMqR2m8Qjd30HC6qwzEqfUFB2Nse_AcoW2fGCn9Ig

The animation on the whole has a vibe to it that I haven’t seen anywhere else: at times it’s unabashedly limited animation, lavished with intricate detail such as lusciously-drawn, swaying hair or precisely folding clothes; other times it’s fluidly realised with cartoonish distortions and expressions. But, remarkably, although it casually flickers between eclectic styles, it feels coherent in its own playful kind of way. There’s just something natural about the way these animators work together that makes their styles compliment each other and add attitude and richness to the series instead of clashing. And above all there’s this feeling emanating from the animation – that it’s the product of an aspiring and talented young generation, of their extra effort and the pride they took in their work.

Often, animation quality is a topic that gets left behind (or completely misrepresented) in most fan reviews and discussions, but I doubt there would be many viewers who didn’t sit up and notice it in Love Lab, especially in some key episodes. Maki’s sensuous twirls as her cross-dressing counter part, Suzune’s clumsy flusters, Riko’s raw, fierce punches – the colourful and charismatic way the characters move in Love Lab defines their personalities as much as the things they say. And it wasn’t just the joke cuts either –  the scene of Riko being upset in the hallway in episode 3 portrayed Riko with an unspoken tenderness and vulnerability that we never would have seen without the creative spark of the animator behind it. This is what I mean by the animators being the ones who put in the finishing touches. There are plenty of anime out there with more expensive and technically impressive animation, but Love Lab is a shining example of how a handful of animators can bring a character to life in ways that the director and writer couldn’t possibly envision. There are a few studios and directors out there who should pay attention to this fact. You can spend thousands of frames making a character walk around fluidly and say a whole lot less than a turn of the cheek, a shudder or a glance can in just a few.

The Dogakobo Yuruyuri Gang

The dynamism in Love Lab’s animation comes from a group of younger, up-and-comers working at or associated with studio Dogakobo. The studio has actually been around for some time: it was founded in 1973 as a pure animation workshop and, since Nausicaa Valley of the Wind that year, has done considerable work on Ghibli movies. It changed tack in 2005 by making a push to producing its own works. It gained a reputation as a studio for mediocre eroge adaptations such as Koihime Musou and Hoshizora e Kakaru Hashi with its subsequent works. But between 2011 and 2012 a kind of revolution happened at the company, hand-in-hand with the success of Yuruyuri. The studio has now become known for quality animation and popular comedy series. The company hired up at this time, opening its doors to a new generation of animators. The 2012 sequel to Yuruyuri gave them the first real opportunity show what they could do, and it was glaringly obvious that they had struck some real talent with their new employees and those other young animators they gathered for the project.

https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/91SWW3ZGJRXrNXrQhMj9PMwq3y3kN6fnQ9lXMR2KcGCdcc52UocI029IHhQ4_kSj0UbVnnrEbpP7uEnqLTzTbJBMjiRl4WRdrYPE2egWUPdD6EFxcUJ6x47WxAYUxmD72A
source: http://www.jec.ac.jp/anime/2012/09/post_54.html

Yuryuri was transformative for Dogakobo and a pivotal career launching point for this group of skilled animators. In that sense, it was an important anime in terms of the broader industry as well, as these guys are out there and very active today. Only a year later, Love Lab was the very next step that this group would take all together and they proved they weren’t a one hit wonder, raising the stakes and delivering their best work yet. The vigour of these fresh animators at Dogakobo is put on great display in Love Lab.

Let’s look of some of the most notable people in this group:

Nakajima Chiaki (Dogakobo) (中島千明)

The one with the most obvious stamp on the show’s look has got to be the character designer, Nakajima Chiaki. Nakajima is an animator and Dogakobo employee who has been active since 2005. She resumes the role of character designer/chief AD after having done it for the first time on Yuruyuri. Her designs for Love Lab are stellar, undeniably cute but also full of character and zest. She didn’t get to do any actual key animation on the show, but the visual roadmap she laid out with her designs and animation oversight work make her a major part of its charming look. Although she was integral in both Yuruyuri and Love Lab, I don’t see her as being part of the following group of animators as much as she is just a prominent Dogakobo staffer. The reason for this is that she hasn’t often worked alongside them in a key animation capacity.

Ooshima Enishi (Freelance) (大島縁)

Ooshima Enishi left a huge imprint on Love Lab, being a major animator on several episodes (there’s a good chance he did more animation than anyone else). But he wasn’t just a mindless workhorse of the show – the style and charisma he wove into his animation was a major part of Love Lab’s aesthetic. His drawing style is distinctively crisp and highly detailed, while his motions are an exhilarating mix of swaying hair and clothes and boppy, cutesy character acting. His predilection for eloquently detailed hair is definitely noticeable in Love Lab. He also gives me the impression of an animator who takes great pride in their work and is willing to work himself that extra mile. He recently gained a lot of attention for animating all of Gochuumon wa Usagi-desu-ka alongside only one other person (key animation). Although not a Dogakobo employee, he has worked closely with them since Yuruyuri season 2.

https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/nS0awN1qnqXFigArgO9fep-lqO1oNTK6cKPgRugohBNn6T-FQa6RD22_anoVdudzkKJHst-smWeGU6nKrlEVgUtBHAEmBnv1XDRAtY8jJ5Ut7Kb0yw8nPuUAxWoWFJ4kMQ

Yuuki Watanabe (Dogakobo) (渡邉祐記) {https://twitter.com/aninabe05}

Yuuki Watanabe is another animator who has only just burst into the animation industry. He has rapidly risen to become one of Dogakobo’s most valuable assets. From doing animation on only one episode of the 2012 Yuruyuri, he stepped up to doing a significant amount of key animation for a whopping 5 episodes of Love Lab, and even more for their following series, Mikakunin de Shinkoukei . He brings the more whacky and cartoony moments to the show, with very fast, fluid movements and fun, inventive distortions such as people’s body parts being left behind between frames. The mix of his comical, expressive animation and Ooshima’s more flamboyant, detailed work, these two probably had the biggest hand in crafting Love Lab’s memorable, charismatic animation palette.

https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/GLWQHPlVa15T7yZOCnZqzeslO2epxJP7s4MD9n4iaOXZc-g05otJrqyRFxgSmb00iyOSq60rvCD7tfLWGytYtcIvT7nkRKXK0LH8a2ZskofSNLP7H7pQB-LyTuNUIs80pg

Nishii Ryousuke (Freelance?) (西井涼輔)

Although he doesn’t seem to be a Dogakobo employee (the sakuga wiki postulates that he’s freelance), he has much the same career path as these guys and he is often associated with Dogakobo works. Like Yuuki Watanabe, his first credit is on the second season of Yuruyuri, on which he did key animation for 3 episodes. And, like all the others, his involvement ramped up for Love Lab – doing key animation for 5 episodes. Quite different again to Ooshima or Yuuki, Nishii’s style seems to be quite gentle and densely fluid with natural movements. He’s clearly quite a skilled and industrious young animator who I hope will get more opportunities to show of what he can do in the years to come. He hasn’t been that active lately, but did do some key animation in Ping Pong episode 6.

https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/8Q4mONwreHfsxlZlfA7g19RzAdcDSAP83zI6_U_ywK5cIZso3o5wgoVDnDR4XuDspXh3JL-tjbMHGPgHI5kc2F5xqxg8qGYVIOcUoS1wrVbYGRFYvv76xpka39SRmkLHbw https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/kJjjGfxArnk35914Bvp6YFQc1CGbhI0SUlcSssQUJP--Z8UzC-sEELvlZTztdrXn3UZDX7EFHaeRoS7z183gMa08LG9zOaAJSq04pTV_Ej3Vcl-kvA4okobouzX4qVaMjQ

(source: http://sajiya.blog89.fc2.com/blog-entry-389.html, presumed)

Nonaka Masayuki (Freelance) (野中正幸)

Probably the most prolific of all these animators, Nonaka Masayuki started out at J.C Staff and produced a large volume of work for them on many of their main anime starting from 2009’s Hayate Gotoku. She did key animation for one episode of Yuruyuri in 2011 and then returned with a bigger presence in the second season in 2012. There’s a good chance this was a pivotal point in her career as well, since she went freelance around this time, and has since enjoyed constant work on a variety of different shows. She returned to work alongside Dogakobo for Love Lab in 3 episodes. She has a knack for embodying a very full, lively sense of movement in her animation, even when it is quite limited. Her characters seem to have this bouncy pep to them which means she fits in perfectly with this group.

https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/PgKJawDLCOOJekL0_Z0iQL2pbVzf8lsQ2VDo57DaJiT-xjtVgjkb0_-zdsyRsMoriY3L9NQ_Gep2nW44PDYH47alSVwGacfUX2sak2CubZRrJy5Etzsnq5g6tCjQAccuzg

Yoshida Kanako (Freelance?) (吉田奏子)

A quieter achiever of the bunch, Yoshida Kanako is a young key animator who seems to have been active for the past 5 years or so. She was involved with both seasons of Yuruyuri and since then she has also been a regular on Dogakobo anime, including 5 episodes of Love Lab (2 as an animator and 3 as an AD). She has an understated animation quality, which is a gentle kind of limited animation, creating soft yet lively and captivating movement. Her recent work on Ishuukan Friends has gained attention for this reason.

https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/Q23-6ClxXeL-mDouw4t7gOWYUJFOlviOeW3QEofepR3fUBzJLfHtrnyQ9BejSSEHuk3b6r4aKdKgHOYIETOX2zorsbXUHgfKnsJxC1OzW45oQmUXWPvGnPgRQ8wkHMQmlw

The Golden Episodes

What’s interesting is that this isn’t just a list of animators who worked on the same series, their efforts were concentrated in several key episodes. This means they directly worked with other on the series.

Dogakobo seem to have developed a very clear strategy in their scheduling which results in this particular clique of animators all working together in a concentrated set of episodes. In Yuruyuri season 2, it was episodes 1,6, 7 and 11 and in Love Lab it was episodes 1,3,5 and 12. It is no coincidence then, that these episodes are striking for their animation quality and intensity. Even to a fan who doesn’t know the first thing about animation, these episodes are clearly stand-out affairs, while the rest of the show is, mostly, simply ‘good quality’. To illustrate just how aligned these animators were for these episodes, I prepared this table:

eptable

As you can see, the episodes given to this team of animators are closely aligned with the episodes the series director and  main writer worked on. It makes sense that the director would consider these key episodes and arrange the best staff. On top of the main staff, some good freelance animators were bought in for these episodes (e.g Kouno Megumi in episode 1). Episode 13 is probably an exception because it was more about the emotional payoff than the comedy and therefore required less eccentric animation. The episodes outside of this set are frequently more outsourced and, in the case of 6 and 7, required character designer Chiaki Nakamura to act as a chief animation director.

Also an interesting thing to note is that these four episodes (and only these four) had a ‘Production Advancement’ credit. The person credited with this is Dogakobo employee Umehara Shouta (梅原翔太). Given that there’s little internal information or interviews available with Dogakobo staff, it’s hard to determine his importance in all of this, but the fact is he is intrinsically linked with these animators.

He was credited with production advancement in those key episodes of Yuruyuri as well. In fact, in pretty much any case where Dogakobo assembles some of these animators, he has this credit. If you see his name attached to an episode, you know it’s going to be a good one! And it’s not just the internal staff, but the freelance animators who worked on these episodes also rarely work alongside Dogakobo except when Umehara is involved. But until I know more, I’ll stop short of saying he was key in scouting and assembling this staff, since it could just be that those key episodes require more overall oversight/collaboration work which requires him to act in this capacity.

Was it the director, Ohta who pulled these animators together for Yuruyuri and again for Love Lab? Or was it Dogakobo, through Umehara or otherwise? And who developed the approach of scheduling them all into a handful of episodes? I’d love to know more, but we’ll probably never know.

Looking Ahead

It was the unified effort of these guys that bought Love Lab to our screens with the kind of gusto and energy that made it such an entertaining series. Despite their short terms in the job, these younger animators have already shown they have a brash idiosyncratic style and the ability to beat par when it comes to the quality of their work. In an industry that seems to becoming increasingly fractured, with most young, talented animators going freelance quickly, it’s too rare to see a group like this being assembled.

Soon after Love Lab, all of these animators joined forces again for Dogakobo on the Mikakunin de Shinkoukei Music Video (which has 9 animators in total), which was a promotional video released prior to the show.

This video is a concentrated rush of exactly the kind of lively, fresh and surprising kind of animation they whipped up for Love Lab. It’s cutesy, boppy and fun in a way that I can’t really recall seeing elsewhere in anime. It’s probably their best work as a team so far, but I just hope it isn’t their group’s swan song.

Mikakunin de Shinkoukei itself featured only some of these animators on different episodes, and subsequent Dogakobo productions haven’t ‘bought the gang back together’ so to speak. Director Ohta Masahiko seems to have moved on, now releasing a new anime with Studio Pierrot as the animation studio. Meanwhile, Dogakobo is working on Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun. Since they’ll be essentially competing this season, I don’t see Dogakobo sharing its resources, so our only hope is for Shoujo Nozaki-kun to make an effort to reunite this Love Lab lot, freelancers included. It seems unlikely, but even if we don’t see them all working together again, I will be keeping an eye on their careers.

 

10 thoughts on “The Animation of Love Lab & The Dogakobo Gang

  1. Nice post!
    Dogakobo’s been sure to deliver for a while, as long as it’s not a VN/otome game adaptation they seem to half-ass every time you’re going to get at least above average character animation; even lesser productions like GJbu got outstanding stuff like Oshima’s solo ED3 (http://sakuga.yshi.org/post/show/7171/), and Nozaki-kun’s first episode already contained more nice cuts than some entire shows do. It’s absolutely true that only LoveLab and YuruYuri have pushed them to the next level though, Ohta/Aoshima’s team bring out the best in them for sure. I agree about Umehara’s involvement as well, not only as someone managing these stellar episodes but as the person in charge of bringing outside talent. You can see him on twitter (https://twitter.com/kafunsyokougun) interacting with a bunch of young animators that have made an appearance in Dogakobo’s best performances, like Ryuu Nakayama and geso ikuo. There’s some other tricky factors as well, like Megumi Kouno working on LoveLab because of the Aniplex producer – Yosuke Toba (http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/encyclopedia/people.php?id=40459) has been in charge of every single thing Kouno’s been working on, including her main projects like imas and Vividred. He’s likely responsible for the upcoming KimiUso anime as well, and that had a PV that might very well be Kouno’s solo work.
    Either way, the studio’s putting the connections to good use and that’s what matters. Solid in-house staff, good relationships with skilled freelancers and an open attitude towards new talent is a winning combo.

    1. Thanks for the informative reply!

      I suspected Umehara’s direct involvement in actually finding these animators and bringing them together but I couldn’t find anything more concrete. I’ll have to stalk his twitter!

      Interesting connection with the Aniplex producer too. The cliques and connections within the industry really fascinate me, especially when they aren’t obvious like these associations with producers.

      I think Dogakobo made a conscious decision to take the risk of hiring these less experienced staff (the ones actually working at the company anyway), and it’s paid off for sure. What other studios are actually hiring young staff in-house these days? It seems quite rare. Some established studios gradually foster their own talent like KyoAni, but picking up new blood like this an immediately thrusting them into the limelight is interesting to see.

  2. Wow. That was a fascinating piece; thanks for writing.

    I’ve had my eye on Dogakobo since Love Lave, and while I don’t really have the knowledge or experience to be able to apprehend the kind of small details that you did here, it was unmistakable that somebody (or somebodies) at this studio doing really valuable work.

    On the industry side of things, it’s pretty interesting to read that many of the best young animators are going freelance. It makes sense. If you’re talented enough to get work anyways, going freelance seems like a good way to make sure you get to at least have a shot at working on the stuff you want to, rather than being pigeonholed by whatever your studio picks up. But this idea of association, of one studio having an affiliation with a certain ground of freelancers—that’s neat stuff, and the point you make about Umehara Shouta’s potential involvement in bringing them together is pretty cool.

    Again, an awesome read, thanks for writing it!

    1. Thanks you! It took some time to put together! haha

      It’s a common trend for more stand-out young animators to initially be employed at a studio, but then leave to become freelance as soon as they gain recognition for key animation work. As you say, it makes a lot of sense in terms of picking up more varied work, but it’s certainly a make-or-break risk since they need the reputation and contacts to gain consistent and well-paying work.

      Strong correlations between studios and the external animators they get onboard for their anime is very common, but I think this case was exceptional because it was such a tight-knit group working directly with each other on specific episodes. I really hope they work together again, if if it’s only for an MV like the Mikakunin one!

      1. It was cool to watch the Mikakunin MV after reading your piece because I was thinking specifically about animation styles at that point, and there were definitely moments in which I went, “Oh! I see the change!”

  3. I really hope we get too see another series with these animators working together. I can’t get enough of their animation. Even the few bits in Mikakunin adds a lot to the enjoyment. But it was Benio that made the show for me.
    On another note, I nominated your blog for the Liebster “Award”. I hope you don’t mind. You can read about it in my blog post. I discovered your blog through this post while I was searching for blog posts about Dogakobo a few months ago.
    Thanks :)

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