If you’ve seen Koutetsu no Kabaneri I think it’s safe to assume you noticed that a few times every episode, a particular shot would rear its head as particularly beautiful and well-drawn. I know a lot of people, myself included, found the effect a little jarring – in addition to blowing me away with those special shots it made me realise how bland it looked the rest of the time. That said, it got me wondering, how did they achieve the effect, and perhaps more importantly, why? I did a bit of digging, and what I found has given me a lot more respect for what they were trying to achieve and the skill and effort that went into these ‘make-up animation’ shots.
The story of Kabaneri’s animation style all starts with the drawings of one man, Haruhiko Mikimoto. Mikimoto was a major formative player in the 80s anime aesthetic, working extensively alongside Shoji Kawamori, he was responsible for the character design work for the original Macross and the subsequent sequels up until the Macross 7 series. He also designed the characters for GAINAX’s seminal Gunbuster OVA. As a designer who is pure illustrator rather than of animator origins, the degree to which he was embedded in the anime look during the 80s was certainly unusual. He was even credited with animation director (Character Director, specifically) on Super Dimension Fortress Macross, which is definitely rare for a non-animator, and kind of unheard of nowadays. He has a gentle art style that lends itself to beautiful girls, with an element of realism and a soft beauty, his designs stand the test of time.
Since his heyday he has bowed out of the anime industry to some degree, but has remained active as an illustrator and manga artist. Fleeting chances at a major comeback have slipped by over the years, the most recent being the designer for the adaptation of his manga, Tytania. Sadly, that series fell far short of being a grand success. He had previously stated that he thought he may not get any more opportunities to design in anime due to the fact that he pursues the use of shadow and delicate line-work to express his characters which runs counter to the direction of the industry, tending to favour simple designs with crisp lines.
This all changed, however, when the director of Kabaneri, Tetsurou Araki, reached out to him for his individual style to mark a triumphant return to the medium. To help his revival of his classic look, he discussed with director Araki what they could do on Kabaneri and came up with the idea of not using the standard 1 or 2 grade shadows but instead using ‘0.5 grade shadows’. Before getting into the hype ‘0.5 grade shadows’ buzz term, let me quickly touch on what shadow grades mean.
Basically most anime is done with 1-grade shadows, back in the 80s and the 90s to some degree, the design work and aesthetic was such that it was popular to ramp that up to 2-grade shadows. This means you have 3 dimensions of shading that the key animators have to apply to their drawings. 1 grade usually means a character can have one shade of shadow, 2 grades means they can have a deeper level of shadow within a shadow. These grades have different predefined coloured lines/shading within the genga.
In this image, you can see that the character is drawn to 2-grade shadows. There is a shadow shading on the hair (1影) and then a deeper shade (2影). They have also used a highlight shade (ハイライト).
You might be confused then as to what 0.5 grade means. How can you have half a grade? Apparently, so was Mikimoto, who originally thought that shadow would be used sparsely and with somewhat faint colours so as to not make them too bold. However, the idea was to diminish the clear definition of shadow lines altogether. Put very simply, the concept of 0.5 grade shadow is that instead of producing anime with rigid, line-defined areas of shadow, the animation would have the feel of an illustration, using soft gradients and brushes to apply shading.
As you might imagine, this is a massively ambitious shift in the production norm and very difficult to apply. If you are familiar with the work of a key animator you would know that their work is taken by someone else to be digitised into computer format before being coloured. The lines of the animators guide the colouring staff as to how the shading and highlight should be applied. This means that the key animator cannot simply apply gradient and brush shading directly in their key-frames. To tackle this approach, director Araki had to reform the production process itself with the creation of a brand new production credit, the ‘make-up animator’
A kind-of similar credit already exists, and is also used in Kabaneri, called Special Effect (特殊効果). Special effects also involves touching up the digitised drawings but is generally used for mechanical objects such as guns or mecha. Director Araki allowed Kabaneri’s special effects artist, Chiemi Irisa (入佐芽詠美) to share some examples of her work on twitter, offering a rare glance of the position at work. What a different show Kabaneri would have been without this!
But the make-up animator credit is different in a number of ways. The most obvious distinction is that it’s being applied to characters, sometimes in motion, rather than static objects. As you can imagine, illustrating people and mechanical detail require a very different skillset. However,the differences aren’t purely cosmetic (pardon the pun) – the make-up animator has a much bigger part in the animation production process.
Normally, the key animator’s drawings are in-betweened and digitised and then passed on to touch-up and colouring. Once the colouring is done, the Special Effects role steps in and adds detail, as seen in the above picture. The make-up animator, however, takes the reigns from the in-betweening stage, being responsible for the digitisation, colouring and then their own brand of beautification. Various techniques are applied to transform a normal cut into more of an illustration following the ‘0.5 grade shading’ philosophy. Brushes, special linework, and gradient colouring are digitally painted to evoke the gentle, delicate artistry of Mikimoto’s original illustrations.
The example below shows this being applied.
In this case, you can see that the genga is already quite detailed and uses 2-grade shadows, plus highlights. These shadows and highlight lines defined by the genga are strictly coloured in the next section by the make-up animator. The final image shows the completed frame with the ‘make-up’ effects applied.
This example clearly shows the application of digitally painted brush, shine and soft lines on the face, hair and eyes. They really are applying make-up to bring out the beauty of the character and the 0.5 grade shading is a clear part of that. In the final image, the shadows are no longer clear-cut levels but naturally gradient. The result is quite stunning and does reflect the soft beauty in some of Mikimoto’s illustrations.
This work was done buy a team of Make-Up Animators led by Sachiko Matsumoto with a series-wide credit of chief make-up animator. Sachiko has been thriving in a the photography/compositing area of production for some time, doing great work on Guilty Crown back before WIT was spawned from from I.G. The surprising shift to a more drawing-based role that even involves work with in-between drawing is made possible by her original fondness for drawing and her art school graduation.
Sachiko looked deeply into Mikimoto’s illustrations, observing the radiance that comes from his blurred colours and the soulful highlight in his pupils, and the way his hair feels like one long, gentle stream. She also drew inspiration from Osamu Dezaki’s harmony cuts, where the shot turns into a painting with cel and background seamlessly coming together into one artwork. This inspiration is very clear in some of the made-up shots.
If anyone remembers the remarkable, completely over-promising trailer for Kabaneri? If not, I’ve inserted it below. The extensive use of make-up animation and special effects in every shot of this trailer was a massive part of its wow-factor (and subsequent over-hype).
The studio invested in a new piece of software called 「TVPaint Animation」for this work on the trailer. The software is for digital genga, providing a lot of advanced tools including a range of brush effects.Only a small team of people with digital genga experience were at WIT studio and they had a lot of trial an error with learning the software. When the production started on the full show, they were pulled together to form the make-up animator team.
Kabaneri’s Make-up Animators
松本幸子 市万田千恵子 藤井苑美 広瀬いづみ 山﨑千恵
中愛夏 (from episode 9 onward)
The limitations of the make-up animator approach is that it would be a prohibitively expensive undertaking to do it frame-by-frame for whole sequences. Where the trailer could afford to deliver a concentrated, uninterrupted hit of highly touched-up animation, the series fell well short of this. Despite the hype surrounding this new credit, the reality was that it could only be applied to certain key moments, mainly money shots of the characters. The team worked on about 10 cuts per episode.
While those cuts certainly look fantastic, I think the overall experience for a lot of people was a jarring one. Those spotlight moments, it turns out, also tend to illuminate how bland and flat the show looks like without its make-up on. I have no doubt that, especially given it’s poor production values further into the series, their workload would have been better refocused on the basics of dynamic and expressive animation. That said, I cannot fault it as a marketing technique – the trailer certainly rammed this series into many people’s ‘must-watch’ baskets, and I have no doubt that those made-up ‘money-shots’ of Mumei did a lot for her bishoujo marketability.
Director Araki is guilty of putting hype and sales pitch over making a good anime, but he’s also guilty of boldly trying something new in the production lifecycle, and trying something new for all the right reasons. The make-up animation wasn’t thought-up to make production easier or more efficient, it was dreamed up to take the look and feel of 2D animation to a new level of beauty and prowess and to conjure the tender beauty of an old pro’s illustration work. Sometimes in the anime medium, whether an attempt like this was a technical success or not is far less important than the fact that people cared enough to try.
And who knows, maybe make-up animation may well become another staple weapon in the young Wit Studio and director Araki’s arsenal when they tackle their next big project.
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：
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!
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.
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).
With an utterly dazzling final salvo, Space Dandy has reached the end of its eclectic journey. I don’t have a lot of time on my hands these days to get drawn into discussions on anime, but I had to make an exception here. Following the path of its other recent top-tier title, Star Driver, BONES have concentrated a staggering well of talent, money and effort into ensuring Dandy’s last step is a remarkable one, and one that is brilliantly animated. But bluntly, they succeeded. I haven’t seen such an intense combination of animation of this caliber from so many vastly different styles packed into 20 minutes since Shinya Ohira directed the animation spectacle that was Azura’s Wrath 11.5! It was an entertaining, climactic rush, but more importantly, I got that feeling again. That visceral, gut feeling of being swept away by animation that isn’t just competent or technically impressive but is also alive with creative energy and spirit.
It kicked off with the furious speed of Hiroyuki Aoyama’s cuts of the Aloha Oeentering the battlefield, spinning and spazzing, really sucked me in with the smooth momentum of Keiichiro Watanabe’s chase scene, pushed higher with the jittery humor and raw drive of Norifumi Kugai’s work and then hit a resounding high-note with truly fantastic animation from arguably the biggest talents in Dandy: Yoshimichi Kameda, Yutaka Nakamura and BahiJD. These people all put the passion for their work on full display this episode, and you could really feel it breathing in every frame. There’s no doubt they were given free reign over their cuts to make them as great as they could.
Keiichiro Watanabe may have achieved his best work to date here with very tricky background animation work and a great sense of movement – I could really see the thrust of a powerful rocket behind the advance of the Aloha Oe. Meanwhile, Norifumi Kugai definitely reached new heights with his efforts here, being a relative newcomer to the industry. The sheer speed and determination of the ship could be felt as it pushed to the top of the tower.
Yoshimichi Kameda contributed a blatant reference to Yoshinori Kanada’s famous fire dragon, but it’s not just a throwaway nod to the animator that inspired him and so many others – it’s a full bow. Of all the allusions that animators have made to that dragon, this is the first time that anyone has come close to matching the original undulating beauty of its twisting, formless movement. Kameda has pushed himself to match the work of his predecessor and has really evoked his spirit in doing so.
Yutaka Nakamura handles the next beat, which is Dandy cutting the the space eels with the sword and then nakedly erupting from his mecha for a final push towards the centre of the weapon. Not to be outdone, he imbues it with his usual effortless gravitas and thrilling choreography. But this episode was also noteworthy for him because, as Bahi explained on his twitter, he was inspired to try drawing some of his raw animation digitally (using a tablet). It’s interesting to see the inter-generational influence going on in places like Bones. Bahi himself animated the final high-note of animation, ending with the awesome zoom-in to Dandy’s eye. His work on Dandy speaks for itself – as a young animator only really just starting in the industry, his achievements are remarkable and his skill undeniable.
Other than the animation, there wasn’t a whole lot going on with this final episode, but that’s the way it should be. As a show that has made no excuse for being almost solely about profiling the visual storytelling skills of a wide swath of the anime industry, there could be no better send-off. Someone gave Shinichiro Watanabe a whole bunch of money with few strings attached, and he did what any great anime director/producer would do and gave as many creatively-charged staff from across the industry a free stage to do what they do best.
As a series overall, Dandy isn’t especially memorable, but as an ode to so many of the talented people that make up the most alive and interesting 2D animation industry in the world, it was worth every second. It’s just a shame that even more people couldn’t have been involved – but uniting all the best anime staff is just a dream, not a possibility.
Love Lab is a romantic school comedy based on a four-panel manga straight from the pen-hand of Ruri Miyahara. The premise is simple – the student council at a respectable all-girls are drawn into their president’s whirlwind of naive romance fantasies, ultimately becoming a club for practicing at the art of finding love. At first it didn’t sound like it was worth the effort of giving a go, but I think fate must have been at play; I ended up stumbling into it anyway, and, when I did stumble into it, I fell head over heels in love. Yep, as it turns out, Love Lab has a hell of a lot more going for it than its synopsis belies. Beneath that thin veneer of been-done romantic comedy genre clone, Love Lab has a beating heart and a healthy pulse. Its characters are earnest and charming, its jokes are genuinely funny, and its production is unexpectedly fresh and energised. Make no mistake, this is one of those series that just has something about it, a spring in its step, a glint in its eye, a certain buzz that makes it feel really alive. At its best, Love Lab is totally irresistible and kind of electric to watch. But don’t take my word for it, please go check it out!
Even if you don’t, let’s take a look at why it turned out the way it did; why wasn’t Love Lab just another cute-girls-messing-around-in-school comedy destined to be relegated to the bargain bin of forgotten mediocrity? Maybe it’s the exemplary voice acting work of the main cast (especially Chinatsu Akasaki as the elegant and lovably weird Maki ). Maybe it’s because it was spearheaded by perhaps the most notable director-writer duo of the anime industry’s comedy corner: director Ohta Masahiko and writer Aoshima Takashi. Bordering on not actually being separate people, Aoshima has been the series composer and main writer for every last one of Ohta’s works. Together, they had left a string of well-received comedy series in their wake by this point, from Minami-ke, through to Mitsudomoe and Yuruyuri. Aoshima is a natural at writing scripts that juggle comedy and endearing characters and stories, which definitely comes through here. Ohta meanwhile is known for the extra-animated, energetic visual comedy he often puts into his work.
But never have these two struck success as they did with the breakaway hit Yuruyuri. Why? I would argue that it’s because of the group of animators that was assembled across that show’s two seasons who were able to go that extra mile in injecting fun and interesting animation. Ohta’s other shows certainly have memorable moments of animation, but not with the intensity or pizazz of Yuruyuri. That same team were reunited for Love Lab a year later and in their resurgence they pushed the quality and charisma of their animation to new heights! Many anime out there have exceptional voice acting and solid scripts, but fewer can compete with Love Lab when it comes to the vigour and personality of their animation.
The Animation of Love Lab
If you think of the directors and the writers as building the frame, then the animators are the ones that put in all the hand-made details and final touches. It’s their finish which can either make or break an anime which is good by design. Love Lab was one of the fortunate ones, with an enamoring animation quality that really made the anime the engrossing and fun series that it was.
The animation on the whole has a vibe to it that I haven’t seen anywhere else: at times it’s unabashedly limited animation, lavished with intricate detail such as lusciously-drawn, swaying hair or precisely folding clothes; other times it’s fluidly realised with cartoonish distortions and expressions. But, remarkably, although it casually flickers between eclectic styles, it feels coherent in its own playful kind of way. There’s just something natural about the way these animators work together that makes their styles compliment each other and add attitude and richness to the series instead of clashing. And above all there’s this feeling emanating from the animation – that it’s the product of an aspiring and talented young generation, of their extra effort and the pride they took in their work.
Often, animation quality is a topic that gets left behind (or completely misrepresented) in most fan reviews and discussions, but I doubt there would be many viewers who didn’t sit up and notice it in Love Lab, especially in some key episodes. Maki’s sensuous twirls as her cross-dressing counter part, Suzune’s clumsy flusters, Riko’s raw, fierce punches – the colourful and charismatic way the characters move in Love Lab defines their personalities as much as the things they say. And it wasn’t just the joke cuts either – the scene of Riko being upset in the hallway in episode 3 portrayed Riko with an unspoken tenderness and vulnerability that we never would have seen without the creative spark of the animator behind it. This is what I mean by the animators being the ones who put in the finishing touches. There are plenty of anime out there with more expensive and technically impressive animation, but Love Lab is a shining example of how a handful of animators can bring a character to life in ways that the director and writer couldn’t possibly envision. There are a few studios and directors out there who should pay attention to this fact. You can spend thousands of frames making a character walk around fluidly and say a whole lot less than a turn of the cheek, a shudder or a glance can in just a few.
The Dogakobo Yuruyuri Gang
The dynamism in Love Lab’s animation comes from a group of younger, up-and-comers working at or associated with studio Dogakobo. The studio has actually been around for some time: it was founded in 1973 as a pure animation workshop and, since Nausicaa Valley of the Wind that year, has done considerable work on Ghibli movies. It changed tack in 2005 by making a push to producing its own works. It gained a reputation as a studio for mediocre eroge adaptations such as Koihime Musou and Hoshizora e Kakaru Hashi with its subsequent works. But between 2011 and 2012 a kind of revolution happened at the company, hand-in-hand with the success of Yuruyuri. The studio has now become known for quality animation and popular comedy series. The company hired up at this time, opening its doors to a new generation of animators. The 2012 sequel to Yuruyuri gave them the first real opportunity show what they could do, and it was glaringly obvious that they had struck some real talent with their new employees and those other young animators they gathered for the project.
Yuryuri was transformative for Dogakobo and a pivotal career launching point for this group of skilled animators. In that sense, it was an important anime in terms of the broader industry as well, as these guys are out there and very active today. Only a year later, Love Lab was the very next step that this group would take all together and they proved they weren’t a one hit wonder, raising the stakes and delivering their best work yet. The vigour of these fresh animators at Dogakobo is put on great display in Love Lab.
Let’s look of some of the most notable people in this group:
The one with the most obvious stamp on the show’s look has got to be the character designer, Nakajima Chiaki. Nakajima is an animator and Dogakobo employee who has been active since 2005. She resumes the role of character designer/chief AD after having done it for the first time on Yuruyuri. Her designs for Love Lab are stellar, undeniably cute but also full of character and zest. She didn’t get to do any actual key animation on the show, but the visual roadmap she laid out with her designs and animation oversight work make her a major part of its charming look. Although she was integral in both Yuruyuri and Love Lab, I don’t see her as being part of the following group of animators as much as she is just a prominent Dogakobo staffer. The reason for this is that she hasn’t often worked alongside them in a key animation capacity.
Ooshima Enishi left a huge imprint on Love Lab, being a major animator on several episodes (there’s a good chance he did more animation than anyone else). But he wasn’t just a mindless workhorse of the show – the style and charisma he wove into his animation was a major part of Love Lab’s aesthetic. His drawing style is distinctively crisp and highly detailed, while his motions are an exhilarating mix of swaying hair and clothes and boppy, cutesy character acting. His predilection for eloquently detailed hair is definitely noticeable in Love Lab. He also gives me the impression of an animator who takes great pride in their work and is willing to work himself that extra mile. He recently gained a lot of attention for animating all of Gochuumon wa Usagi-desu-ka alongside only one other person (key animation). Although not a Dogakobo employee, he has worked closely with them since Yuruyuri season 2.
Yuuki Watanabe is another animator who has only just burst into the animation industry. He has rapidly risen to become one of Dogakobo’s most valuable assets. From doing animation on only one episode of the 2012 Yuruyuri, he stepped up to doing a significant amount of key animation for a whopping 5 episodes of Love Lab, and even more for their following series, Mikakunin de Shinkoukei . He brings the more whacky and cartoony moments to the show, with very fast, fluid movements and fun, inventive distortions such as people’s body parts being left behind between frames. The mix of his comical, expressive animation and Ooshima’s more flamboyant, detailed work, these two probably had the biggest hand in crafting Love Lab’s memorable, charismatic animation palette.
Although he doesn’t seem to be a Dogakobo employee (the sakuga wiki postulates that he’s freelance), he has much the same career path as these guys and he is often associated with Dogakobo works. Like Yuuki Watanabe, his first credit is on the second season of Yuruyuri, on which he did key animation for 3 episodes. And, like all the others, his involvement ramped up for Love Lab – doing key animation for 5 episodes. Quite different again to Ooshima or Yuuki, Nishii’s style seems to be quite gentle and densely fluid with natural movements. He’s clearly quite a skilled and industrious young animator who I hope will get more opportunities to show of what he can do in the years to come. He hasn’t been that active lately, but did do some key animation in Ping Pong episode 6.
Probably the most prolific of all these animators, Nonaka Masayuki started out at J.C Staff and produced a large volume of work for them on many of their main anime starting from 2009’s Hayate Gotoku. She did key animation for one episode of Yuruyuri in 2011 and then returned with a bigger presence in the second season in 2012. There’s a good chance this was a pivotal point in her career as well, since she went freelance around this time, and has since enjoyed constant work on a variety of different shows. She returned to work alongside Dogakobo for Love Lab in 3 episodes. She has a knack for embodying a very full, lively sense of movement in her animation, even when it is quite limited. Her characters seem to have this bouncy pep to them which means she fits in perfectly with this group.
Yoshida Kanako (Freelance?) (吉田奏子)
A quieter achiever of the bunch, Yoshida Kanako is a young key animator who seems to have been active for the past 5 years or so. She was involved with both seasons of Yuruyuri and since then she has also been a regular on Dogakobo anime, including 5 episodes of Love Lab (2 as an animator and 3 as an AD). She has an understated animation quality, which is a gentle kind of limited animation, creating soft yet lively and captivating movement. Her recent work on Ishuukan Friends has gained attention for this reason.
The Golden Episodes
What’s interesting is that this isn’t just a list of animators who worked on the same series, their efforts were concentrated in several key episodes. This means they directly worked with other on the series.
Dogakobo seem to have developed a very clear strategy in their scheduling which results in this particular clique of animators all working together in a concentrated set of episodes. In Yuruyuri season 2, it was episodes 1,6, 7 and 11 and in Love Lab it was episodes 1,3,5 and 12. It is no coincidence then, that these episodes are striking for their animation quality and intensity. Even to a fan who doesn’t know the first thing about animation, these episodes are clearly stand-out affairs, while the rest of the show is, mostly, simply ‘good quality’. To illustrate just how aligned these animators were for these episodes, I prepared this table:
As you can see, the episodes given to this team of animators are closely aligned with the episodes the series director and main writer worked on. It makes sense that the director would consider these key episodes and arrange the best staff. On top of the main staff, some good freelance animators were bought in for these episodes (e.g Kouno Megumi in episode 1). Episode 13 is probably an exception because it was more about the emotional payoff than the comedy and therefore required less eccentric animation. The episodes outside of this set are frequently more outsourced and, in the case of 6 and 7, required character designer Chiaki Nakamura to act as a chief animation director.
Also an interesting thing to note is that these four episodes (and only these four) had a ‘Production Advancement’ credit. The person credited with this is Dogakobo employee Umehara Shouta (梅原翔太). Given that there’s little internal information or interviews available with Dogakobo staff, it’s hard to determine his importance in all of this, but the fact is he is intrinsically linked with these animators.
He was credited with production advancement in those key episodes of Yuruyuri as well. In fact, in pretty much any case where Dogakobo assembles some of these animators, he has this credit. If you see his name attached to an episode, you know it’s going to be a good one! And it’s not just the internal staff, but the freelance animators who worked on these episodes also rarely work alongside Dogakobo except when Umehara is involved. But until I know more, I’ll stop short of saying he was key in scouting and assembling this staff, since it could just be that those key episodes require more overall oversight/collaboration work which requires him to act in this capacity.
Was it the director, Ohta who pulled these animators together for Yuruyuri and again for Love Lab? Or was it Dogakobo, through Umehara or otherwise? And who developed the approach of scheduling them all into a handful of episodes? I’d love to know more, but we’ll probably never know.
It was the unified effort of these guys that bought Love Lab to our screens with the kind of gusto and energy that made it such an entertaining series. Despite their short terms in the job, these younger animators have already shown they have a brash idiosyncratic style and the ability to beat par when it comes to the quality of their work. In an industry that seems to becoming increasingly fractured, with most young, talented animators going freelance quickly, it’s too rare to see a group like this being assembled.
Soon after Love Lab, all of these animators joined forces again for Dogakobo on the Mikakunin de Shinkoukei Music Video (which has 9 animators in total), which was a promotional video released prior to the show.
This video is a concentrated rush of exactly the kind of lively, fresh and surprising kind of animation they whipped up for Love Lab. It’s cutesy, boppy and fun in a way that I can’t really recall seeing elsewhere in anime. It’s probably their best work as a team so far, but I just hope it isn’t their group’s swan song.
Mikakunin de Shinkoukei itself featured only some of these animators on different episodes, and subsequent Dogakobo productions haven’t ‘bought the gang back together’ so to speak. Director Ohta Masahiko seems to have moved on, now releasing a new anime with Studio Pierrot as the animation studio. Meanwhile, Dogakobo is working on Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun. Since they’ll be essentially competing this season, I don’t see Dogakobo sharing its resources, so our only hope is for Shoujo Nozaki-kun to make an effort to reunite this Love Lab lot, freelancers included. It seems unlikely, but even if we don’t see them all working together again, I will be keeping an eye on their careers.
I thought of doing a new regular segment where I talk about an anime staffer who has really made an impression on me in the last month. The first lucky pick is Masaaki Yuasa for his work as the director/storyboarder/screenwriter of Ping Pong. Not all the MVP posts will be this long – it will just depend on the person and how much there is to discuss!
There’s no doubt in my mind that Ping Pong, currently airing on FujiTV’s Noitamina timeslot, is the best anime on TV right now. Having not read the original manga from esteemed author Taiyou Matsumoto upon which it’s based, I can’t speak for exactly how this works as an adaptation, nor to how much of its strengths come from the source material. But what I can say is that the end result is an exhilarating and poignant story realised with a peculiar intensity and gravitas that could only have come from one man: Masaaki Yuasa. This is just the latest step in an accelerated career decorated with achievements and acclaim, as an animator, a designer and as a director. Yuasa is one of the most influential and creatively charged players in the anime industry today, with a history of top-shelf anime under his director’s belt (such as Mind Game, Tatami Galaxy and Kaiba) and a trusted team of artists under his wing.
Make no mistake, no one but Yuasa and his flock could have rendered Ping Pong with the unique visual lustre, punchy sense of style and rough, yet charming production qualities. To celebrate that fact, let’s take a moment to venerate the man and his work. First, how exactly did Yuasa get on board the fast-track express ride to this pinnacle of an anime career? By being a driven, career focused ‘ideas man’ who found himself in a fortunate position early in his working life, basically. Even more simply, by being incredibly talented. But let’s tell the story.
Road of Yuasa
His interest in making things move through the medium of animation was first sparked by seeing Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro.
When entering the industry in the late 80s he chose to work at Asia-do because it was run by two animators he was inspired by, most notably Tsutomu Shibayama, whose animation when at A-Production he was a fan of. He was also keen to take part in the anime shorts that Asia-do often produced.
After leaving Asia-do in around 1992, he did a significant amount of animation work on Crayon Shin-chan, including animation directing credits. His involvement on Crayon Shin-chan was heightened by the receptiveness of its director to new ideas, which Yuasa had in no short supply.
Owing to this, he took charge of several short episodes focusing on a popular side character (Buriburizaemon’s Adventures), which was his first effort in scriptwriting and storyboarding. Even at this early stage, those episodes showcased an outstanding and unique approach.
He Collaborated with the enigmatic Shinya Ohira in the distinguished 1994 Hamaji’s Resurrection.
His penchant for anime with a more artistic bent became clearly visible with his work on Koji Morimoto’s Noiseman Sound Insect in 1997, and then in Tatsuo Satou’s Cat Soup a few years later.
This direction of his career culminated in the 2005 movie anime, Mind Game, which he was offered to direct. His involvement revolutionised the project and ultimately created a powerful and widely extolled film which cemented his status as a creatively uninhibited yet practically adroit director.
This led to him directing a series of memorable tv anime works in the years to come, all of which aired on Fuji TV’s noitamina timeslot, and all of which had its own dissonant variation on Yuasa’s style. It’s a testament to his skill as a director that he challenges himself with new approaches every anime, while still building upon a transient style that remains uniquely his.
On the front-foot with new avenues of production, Yuasa reached out globally to fans to create a new anime movie through kickstarter, called Kick Heart. The call to arms was overwhelmingly successful, raising the $200,000 to create the fun and quirky short film (it’s only 13 mins). This was probably the first significant anime project to have been born from kickstarter and is just one example of Yuasa’s pioneering temperament
It was after this project that he returned to his bread and butter, at the helm of a new Noitamina timeslot manga adaptation – Ping Pong! Altogether a more conventional anime, Ping Pong is still evidently the product of his artistic flare and prodigious handle on the director’s chair.
But, as with any great director, Yuasa doesn’t walk alone. Sharing this path to success are a number of close affiliates who are perhaps just as essential to bringing his anime to life with the pizazz we’ve come to expect. Let’s look at a few:
A South Korean female animator who studied animation in England before moving to Japan to enter the industry. EunYoung Choi attracted a lot of attention for her weird but captivating work on the pre-OP scene in Yuasa’s Kemonozume, episode 10 (which you can view here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l696kcAunhs). She subsequently worked on future Madhouse projects under Yuasa, with a rapidly increasing involvement – she directed/storyboarded/AD’d several episodes of Kaiba. Now that Yuasa appears to no longer be aligned with Madhouse (and let’s face it, who is?), she seems to have followed him to bigger and better things, being instrumental in the development of Kick Heart, and ultimately credited with assistant director with Ping Pong. Their close and strong working relationship is very clear – she often accompanies him on visits to conventions/events and regularly acts as translator for his western interviews. I’m sure she has played a big part in Yuasa’s worldly approach to making anime. Hiring foreign animators and communicating with overseas fans is probably a big reason why Yuasa’s work is often unique and evolutionary compared with the more insular, traditional industry.
Aymeric joined the Yuasa team with Kick Heart, and I have a suspicion that it was through EunYoung Choi. One reason being that he pulled a huge effort on Choi’s episode #9 of Space Dandy (drawing every single bit background art over 4 and half months), which didn’t actually have Yuasa’s involvement, suggesting a separate working relationship. Beyond that, it’s just a hunch. In any case, he was the art director and background artist for Kick Heart, and then the background artist for Ping Pong (there was no way he could draw all of those backgrounds himself!!). Aymeric worked on an uncommon preproduction facet for both Kick Heart and Ping Pong – colour scripts, which provide direction on the flow of colour throughout the anime. You can view his Kick Heart colour scripts here. Although Choi was credited with Color Coordination for Kick Heart, I feel like Kevin has really introduced a greater understanding of colour and more vibrancy into team-Yuasa’s works.
Michio Mihara is a dedicated animator and episode director with a truly fantastic career behind him, as a valuable mainstay of Satoshi Kon’s works, and with impressive work on other big anime films such as Jin-Roh, Princess Mononoke and Spriggan. He is well known amongst fans because he ran a column on anime-style (a well-known animator focus magazine). It was actually through this column that he wrote about EunYoung Choi and raised her profile. Although his accomplishments in the field of animation were well known, his raw creative excellence wasn’t truly discovered until he was given the chance to do all the key animation for episode 12 of Yuasa’s Kemonozume – a challenge that few animators are able to meet in the arena of modern anime. From then it seemed to be a tradition for Yuasa anime to feature a Mihara episode, as Kaiba and Kemonozume both offered highly praised Mihara episodes (in Kaiba he went even further and drew every single drawing, including in betweens). He was the animation bedrock of Kick Heart, being the character designer and sharing all the key animation between only himself and Choi. There is no doubt that he was a valuable associate of Yuasa, but there’s a theory that a falling out occurred between him and Choi (almost certainly over Kick Heart), which casts his future involvement with them in doubt.
Nobutake Ito is another experienced, premier animator who has worked on films such as Ghost in the Shell:Innocence, Summer Wars, Wolf Children, and most recently a new career pinnacle – storyboard, character design and animation on Production I.G Giovanni’s Island. His technical proficiency is well regarded, enough even to have been trusted by Mitsuo Iso to animation direct a good portion of his Denno Coil. But, in a similar story to Mihara, Ito’s creativity and flair was never seen so rawly and freely as in Yuasa’s works. Yuasa, perhaps after meeting him on the production of Cat Soup bought him on board for Mind Game, for which he animated probably the most thrilling sequence in the film – the final chase scene. From then on, he became a regular and vital presence on Yuasa’s shows, being the character designer, animation director and recurring animator on all of his TV anime outings – Kemonozume, Kaiba, Tatami Galaxy and now Ping Pong. With such a huge involvement, Nobutake Ito is probably the animation champion of the Yuasa team, and it’s doubtful that these shows would have looked nearly as good without the ardor and experience he brings with him.
Taking up a main animator role, Yasunori Miyazawa has been called in as a kind of main animator to all of Yuasa’s efforts since Kemonozume. Ever a rich source of finesse and expertise, Miyazawa is to thank for many of the more memorable and impressive animation sequences of all of his anime. This tradition has continued in Ping Pong, although I feel like a thin schedule has hampered his animation work this time! it appears he has less of a collaborator status than the others and more of the scenario where Yuasa respects his work and wants to keep him onboard for all his projects.
Originally starting out as an animator, his inventive and free work in animation, as well as his original interest in making things move still informs his approach to making anime today. It can be seen in the playful, unpolished animation and drawings you’ll find in all his works. It’s his belief that animation should be something enjoyable to do, allowing animators to express themselves through their work without the burden of stringently adhering to a clean character model and style. This is counter to the direction that the anime industry as a whole is going, and his anime certainly stand out for it, but in a good way. His corrugated lines and elegant roughness make for an unexpected kind of nuance and emotiveness and provides a platform for his staff to put their own ideas and efforts on display at their full potency.
But, while he is one of those directors with an animator origin story, he proved early on that he was brimming with ideas that extended far up into the production hierarchy and sprung quickly into the role of director. I believe he’s most effective in this director’s role – in assembling and harnessing talent, guiding the production of his anime and coming up with new big-picture ideas from the ground up. I’ve talked about how he can bring the best out of some of his notable animators and give them the opportunity to flaunt their individualistic craftsmanship. He’s also good at trying new things, like the fusion of live action footage and 2D animation in Mind Game and Tatami Galaxy, the kick-starter fundraising for Kick Heart, the purposefully under-planned antics of Kemonozume and through to writing and storyboarding every episode of Ping Pong himself.
There’s one big reason reason Yuasa is easily one of the most interesting directors in the industry today. There are many other directors out there who get a lot of attention and garner a fan following from their popular works but ultimately succumb to a rut of over-indulging in the comfort of their own stylistic devices and approaches (Hiroyuki Imaishi and Akiyuki Shinbo are my favourite examples of promising directors who fell into this trap). But Yuasa isn’t content to just sit back and not fix things that aren’t broken, but instead strikes me as the kind of creator who would rather risk breaking them to see what new things he can fashion from the debris. As a result, each of his works promises something fresh and exciting and stands out uniquely as a memorable anime in its own right, not just as another entry rolled out in the Yuasa series. Every project is treated as a challenge and every challenge is a story of growth for this rising director. With a team of imaginative and skilled writers, directors and animators surrounding him and a pioneering attitude, Yuasa is someone who we should all be looking to for great things going forward.
He recently gained another wave of attention overseas by guest handling an episode of the strangely popular cartoon, Adventure Time, so it might be hard to guess which direction his career is going to go. One thing that is assured is that he will be handling an episode of the second half of Space Dandy, so I’ll be keenly awaiting that!
I really feel like Ping Pong raised the bar to new heights with its latest offering
Ping Pong presents a surging, heaving swell of grudges, lifelong dreams, responsibilities, love, passion, and pride being stirred up by its entire cast, just waiting to break into uninhibited conflict. Although there have been minor clashes along the way, for example the upsets of Wenge vs Kazuma and Peco vs Sakuma, so far these motivations have mostly peacefully coexisted. Kazuma has been devotedly honing his skills and shouldering the ever increasing burden of redeeming his family name; Wenge has cast his pride aside and has put himself back to the hard work of training up; Peco has rekindled his childhood dream to make gold at the Olympics and is on an extreme up-skill regime; and Smile is silently honing his talent and reconciling his own reasons for winning. And it’s not just the players, the coaches behind them have their own hangups they’re fighting for. Exploring all these characters and what they’ve put on the line with ping pong has been the goal of this anime so far, and there’s an intensifying sense that something is brewing. Things are starting to gain a direction – they’re on a course for collision. Ping Pong has has had suspense and drama all throughout, but this episode sharply brings into focus the fact that the true meaning of the show will all be in the final meeting of these players across the net.
The episode also puts something else under the spotlight – that the core of this series is the friendship and inevitable rivalry between Smile and Peco. The other characters certainly flesh it out and explore the themes of what motivates people, but at the end of the day they’re more of a side-story. The narrative of Ping Ping has made itself clear – Smile will face Peco in an important career match and have to make a choice between listening to his coach and his friends and do whats necessary to win, or standing aside to let Peco go on towards his goal. The parallel’s drawn between Smile and his coach were undeniable, as was the flag of Peco having his leg wrapped. History will repeat itself, and Peco will be injured when he’s matched with Smile. That choice facing Smile is the crux of this series and the morale of the story will be about the meaning of winning. What I can’t predict is what Smile will choose: to win or to lose. If I had to guess at this point it would be ‘to win’, simply because it would feel too predictable otherwise.
We’re seeing real pay-off here from Yuasa’s hands-on, DIY approach to writing/storyboarding each episode. Far from getting tired, he seems to be improving with every episode. This week felt like it had more visual depth and precise pacing than ever before. Every scene had a bite of humour, emotion or tension to it, and there was a pervasive atmosphere throughout. It felt like there were less incongruous moments of animation and more coherency to the rough art style. Combined with the sleek, emotive music, the show’s production was punchier than ever, and as close to beauty as it has ever been. I can now put my concerns about the schedule aside, it’s kept up. But I am hoping to see some animator big guns to come out for the final matches of the show
I thought this was interesting -this is the color script for the first episode. Every episode has its own color script and the intention is to guide the flow of color throughout the episode. Masaaki Yuasa’s works have always had a strong focus on color and this is definitely a major part of that. I think it’s rare for an anime to use this pre-production step, but it seems to be a signature of his. The color scripts for Kick Heart were posted online on the kickstarter page https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/production-ig/masaaki-yuasas-kick-heart/posts/330918. As with Kick Heart, they would have been painted, based on Yuasa’s storyboard, by the series art director and close collaborator Kevin Aymeric. He recently gained attention for drawing every single background in Yuasa’s episode of Space Dandy (episode 9) himself. It’s clear that he’s a creative force to be reckoned with and a valuable addition to the Yuasa ‘team’.