Art Direction: Illya vs Orange

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, 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’.

[HorribleSubs] Fate Kaleid Liner PRISMA ILLYA 3rei!! - 01 [1080p].mkv_snapshot_02.33_[2016.07.28_22.48.08]

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:

[HorribleSubs] Fate Kaleid Liner PRISMA ILLYA 3rei!! - 04 [1080p].mkv_snapshot_03.54_[2016.07.28_22.49.55]

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.




8 thoughts on “Art Direction: Illya vs Orange

  1. Not to take anything away from the ugliness of Illya’s backgrounds, but there’s one significant difference between the two series that you don’t mention. Orange is set in contemporary Japan, whereas Illya also includes fantastical structural elements. For example that castle background, it’s easy to point and laugh at the architectural design, but when you consider Orange production just had to send someone out to take photographs of real locations for their artists to model their backgrounds around them, then yeah it’s grounds for unfair comparisons.

    I’d even go so far as to call Orange’s practices creatively bankrupt. P.A.Works does some nice realistic backgrounds in most of their shows, but it’s just point-and-shoot, copy to paper, done. Satou Dai condemned the practice, saying it’s a drug for the industry. It makes production easier, pleases fans and boosts tourism. Why wouldn’t they do it, right?

    I’m sure the person developing Illya’s backgrounds didn’t have to stretch his creative capacities too much to make a generic castle like that, but as far as creativity goes it’s much better than copying a background from the real world, which by the end looks superrealistic at best.

    1. Thanks for the comment! That’s an interesting perspective. I have to say that, although I’ve known Dai Satou to make sweeping statements like that in the past, I am surprised he has something against the practice of using photographic references for background art.

      Orange’s art is obviously and unapologetically based on scouted photographs of the area, in fact Crunchyroll has even compared the locales shot-for-shot with the anime This approach is so widespread and has been rooted in the industry for so long that it almost goes without saying. It’s not just anime like Orange or Flying Witch or other visually impressive anime that have been noted recently, the majority of anime will receive location scouting and use photographs as reference.

      I have seen other anime that use shot-for-shot photographic reference and deliver bland or even ugly background artwork. Using photographs as a reference makes it easier to create a detailed, convincing scene, but bit does not diminish the artistic talent required to make it look good. Looking at the photos on the crunchyroll article, I have an even greater appreciation of how they rendered the place through their artwork, fleshing out the beauty of the setting and diminishing the mundaneness of the photos.

      I completely agree with Enamelthyst that the sense of place and setting is so crucial to Orange that it outright REQUIRES this approach to be effective.

      That being said, it probably is unfair to have compared the two without mentioning how Orange derived its backgrounds. You are right that a lot of the little details I listed would have come courtesy of photographs rather than the artist’s creativity.

  2. I lived in Matsumoto for a year and a half, and I’m going to have to agree partially with Cyth here—the backgrounds in Orange are very clearly drawn from photos taken around town. (In fact, I have many nearly identical photos myself. I lived literally a 5-minute walk from the school and the park the series depicts.)

    I can’t agree this is an instance of creative laziness, however—the setting is an absolutely integral component of Orange’s narrative world, and any attempt to replicate it haphazardly would pull the audience straight out of that world. More than that, every episode has one or two “in jokes” in which any Matsumoto resident can find a resonance between the real world and the fictional one: for example, the “frog sequence” theme is based on the fact that the quaint little riverside shopping street our heroes are on is called “Kaeru-dori,” and does in fact have a number of frog statues (which visitors are encouraged to find). The geography also always makes sense—characters follow a logical path through town, and sequences never jump from place to place like The Wolverine does in Tokyo. (My only complaint is that Naho always walks to school: from her house by Jouyama Koen that’s a good two-and-a-half-mile slog, so as a high school kid I’d expect to see her riding a bicycle.)

    The production so perfectly replicates the look and feel of Japan’s best town (yes, I’m biased, but Matsumoto was absolutely the highlight of my four years there), and makes it so integral to the tone of its entire project, that I simply can’t believe the abstract platitude, “creativity ex nihilo is better than mimesis” applies in this case. Illya’s world is artistically bankrupt because, although it may be created from scratch, it fails to communicate a real sense of place; Orange’s Matsumoto achieves the perfect authenticity critical to the production through the exemplary use of reference material.

    1. When I first noticed the practice of replicating backgrounds from the real world I was impressed, but over time my sentiment has grown more toward that of Satou’s. Some of the shows from recent years have been purely marketed around this idea of relatable backgrounds (and cute character designs, of course). They look impressive, but they’re easy to make. It’s not sophisticated artistry and hard to appreciate once you realize it.

      That being said, thank you for selling me Matsumoto. I wanted to visit a few of the Onegai Teacher and Ano Natsu de Matteru locations there myself, but was a bit hesitant I’d only find those interesting and nothing else. Guess I’ll head there on Tuesday if the weather improves.

      1. It’s very much worth it! In addition to the obvious locations—the castle, Joyama Koen and Alps Koen (it’s worth going up to Alps Koen with a group to play mallet golf, but the “zoo” will make you sad unless you really enjoy seeing feces-covered tanuki trapped in a barren concrete pit), the Kobo-yama tumulus (actually, apparently that one’s not so obvious), the wasabi farm (which is shockingly cool)—I really recommend a visit to Kaeru-dori (officially Nawate-dori), where you can buy the best taiyaki I ever found in Japan and visit the hyperaggressive pigeons at Yohashira Shrina, then cross the river at the bridge with the red railings, continue down the alley, and look on your right for an amazing little dango stall with a very pleasantly chatty proprietor. There are a half-dozen handmade soba shops off Naka-dori that are also fantastic.

        Apart from that, the Kaichi School building is super-interesting if only for its collection of over a hundred years of school textbooks; watching the evolution of pedagogy and propaganda level is mesmerizing. Finally, if you have a car (or are my kind of cyclist/hiker), follow 67 up into the mountains and visit Hinoki no Yu at Tobira Onsen, the best damn bathhouse in Japan (the restaurant the owners run also serves nice solid home cooking if you’re still hungry). Pretty much only the locals know about it—and few enough even of them—but the outdoor baths are at the perfect temperature just to soak, without worrying about the boiled-lobster effect, and entry is dirt-cheap. There are many more interesting little places around town, but this is already getting way too long.

        …Aaaaand that was totally unrelated to the topic at hand, but still, nothing like returning to Matsumoto vicariously.

  3. “Was the change in art direction to try and tackle the alternate winter world in a different way? Maybe.”

    That’s definitely how I initially came away from it. It actually sort of added to the eerie and off-putting atmosphere of this new world they were in. I think that take away was partially just me being naive about the actual reasons, but it works as an explanation for some of that stuff. Certainly not all of it though. The stretched texturing and the weird blue line, in particular, are pretty obvious flaws.

  4. Orange looks like a complete poorly animated ass 99 times out of 100. The latest episodes are the definition of low budget stick figure animation.

    Whatever makes you feel better about liking that.

    1. Hello, I think you are confusing animation and art, despite my explanation at the start of the post.

      Orange has had terrible animation, particularly since I wrote this post. If the post had been about animation I would have accepted your criticism of my ability to see the future but it’s actually irrelevant.

      Also the animation quality in Orange is almost certainly not sure to low budget but rather a bad schedule and poor animation direction staff.

      Please continue to learn about animation to make informed critique.

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