Please Give Occultic;Nine a Second Chance

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A murder scene seemingly foretold by the events depicted in a Boys Love doujinshi; a mysterious, prescient voice that talks through a radio; a key without a lock; an unexplained mass-suicide; a conspiracy to manipulate the human race with global mind control; a young girl who enacts black magic through an invisible man – if any of this is grabbing your attention then this may be the anime for you. A dark, twisted and irreverently convoluted science-fiction mystery, Occultic;Nine is a wild ride that is well worth your precious time. However, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking otherwise if you had only seen the first episode or two.

Occultic;Nine is probably the most polarising and under-appreciated anime of the current season, and it has nothing to blame but itself. Yes, the rumors are true. The series is very hard to watch in its early stages. The characters are either dry or deeply annoying (especially boob girl and talk boy), and the show drowns you in what feels like a barrage of nonsense. In its first two episodes the series hits its audience with layer upon layer of detail and obscurity. Because it’s so fast an frenetic with how it lays the groundwork of its story, it doesn’t feel like it will ever calm down and reach any kind of cogent ‘point’. I’m here to tell you that it does.

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It gets better

Once all the pieces are put into place, the show very quickly starts to unravel itself, and when it does it hits a glorious stride. Plot thread after plot thread are harmonized in a coalescing symphony, building a really gripping momentum. Since about episode 5, I have been hooked, with each episode revealing another exciting turn of events and bringing characters together into a single plotline. It’s hard to go into detail without spoiling anything, but it’s certainly true that a lot of the stuff in the first couple of episodes I thought were pointless drivel are turning out to be really interesting. Every detail in this show has significance.

There’s something really unique about the way this show tells its story. It’s not the often gaudy visual style it leans on, the unusually fast dialogue, or the offbeat sense of humour – it sits deeper than all of that. Occultic;Nine hits a rare sweet-spot of answering burning questions in its patchwork of mysteries at the same time as throwing a kink into the story, a twist that adds a whole new dimension to it all. Being able to unravel a mystery at the same time as building it is the storytelling magic that makes Occultic;Nine so enjoyable. This series is written by the author of Steins;Gate, but the way it unfolds actually reminded me more of a different author’s work – Baccano. I loved Baccano for much the same reason – there’s such an energy in stories that feel like they’re ever expanding while also gaining focus.

Accolades for this go to the light novel author and Steins;Gate creator, Chiyomaru Shikura and company MAGES., namely ‘Morita to Junpei‘ 森田と純平 (real name: Junpei Morita ). This is not, would you believe, the 60+ year old voice actor no prior writing or production credits, as ANN has concluded, but a wholly different person of the same name (born in 1981). Morita to Junpei has, at a high level, done a stellar job unwinding this tightly packed story into a short anime series, although he will certainly regret the info-dump approach of the first episode. I say ‘at a high level‘ because the story is often let down by is script.

It’s a good thing voice actors aren’t paid per word, or this series would never have got off the ground. It makes no apologies for being an absolute talk-fest at times, cramming in an obscene amount of high-speed dialogue. When the show gets in the talking groove for too long you quickly zone out and eventually the words all blur together into this kind of distant, screeching background noise. The scenes in the cafe are particularly guilty of this. In that godforsaken cafe, conversations seem doomed to end up as competing, inane monologues.

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When these guys get together they create a perfect talk-storm

 

Fortunately, when the show isn’t being a talk-a-thon, it’s delivery is absolutely top-notch. Despite it’s overall mystery notes, it has a real penchant for its scary scenes and can quickly make you think you’re watching a top-tier horror anime (if such a thing exists). As a horror buff I really appreciated how these scenes got under my skin. The fear didn’t come from over-the-top violence, jump-scares or ridiculous monsters  but from genuinely unsettling situations and ideas. Everything to do with the ‘kotoribako’ is just awesome. I’ll never look at a box the same way again.

Again, these frightening sequences were delivered with well-honed aural and visual production deisgn. This sequence in episode 6 was my favorite example of this. The creepy squeaking noise of the box, the way the luminescence of the torch sways realistically, the way the kotoribako slightly shifts its form, oozing blood as it does, barely able to contain the atrocities within.

Moreover the suddenness of the whole situation is deeply unnerving – in plain sight in the middle of Tokyo such a horrific thing is transpiring. This episode was the effort of Masashi Ishihama, well known as the director of Shinsekai Yori. An excellent post about his style and talents has already been written over here, so I won’t digress. Other director/creator highlights include:

Noriko Takao (高雄 統子) on episode 7 ( former kyo-Ani now Idol M@ster director), who made the brief psychometry scenes leave a lasting impact with a rush of rich, intriguing and creative visuals.

And Mamoru Kanbe (神戸 守), the director of Elfen Lied and So Ra No Wo To, who took the idea of being edgy and experimental a little too far. This is an unfortunate example of when the visual voice of a production shouts over the top of its content instead of supporting it.

On the whole, Occultic;Nine’s visuals trade nuance for impact, creating a world with rich colours, lavish detail and unpredictable cinematography. The animation from A-1 Pictures is unfailing in quality, though rarely becomes the star of the scene. The storyboard, layout, and finishing touches often come together to make the show deeply engaging and a thing of beauty.

Occultic;Nine seems to be doing a very good job of alienating its potential audience, thrusting itself to the very fringes of the late night TV fandom. That’s why I felt compelled to tell as many people I can that it has a lot to offer if you can look past its first impressions and persevere through some of its more inane moments. If you enjoy a good mystery, or even just an intricate plot, this is well worth forging ahead with.

 

Kabaneri’s ‘Make-Up Animation’

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Interviews Read:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Art Direction: Illya vs Orange

In simple terms, what you see when watching an anime is the culmination of two different visual elements – the animation, which is the things that move, and the art, which is the static backdrop. After the director approves the layout for a cut, which is like the rough blueprint of how each shot will look, the anime production model generally splits these elements into two separate streams, with both the animation production and the art department using the layout as the basis to develop their side of it. The person responsible for delivering the art is credited as Art Director, usually a series-wide role. The art is often hand-painted on large sheets using a variety of techniques or is sometimes drawn digitally.

When complete and scanned digitally, the two streams are reunited by the photography/compositing stage of production which will then lead into any finishing effects work. Why am I telling you this? Because this season two anime in particular made me break my usual focus on animation appreciation and made me take a good hard look at the other side of the fence. They made me, dammit!

The two anime in question are Orange and Prisma Ilya 3rei Hertz, and their art snatched my attention for totally opposite reasons. Put frankly, those reasons are that Illya was utterly pathetic while Orange is very good. But before I get into kicking heads and patting backs on these two, I want to speak more generally on how anime uses background art.

Anime has been traditionally known as being geared towards effective layouts rather than pure animation and one of the ways this manifests is in a strong focus on the art stream. Anime considered to be ‘high quality’ and anime with large budgets also tend to have high-quality background art. Movies such as Miyazaki’s Ghibli outings, down to television anime like Attack on Titan or even Kill la Kill create rich, attractive works of art as a canvas for their animation. If you want to ogle at such high-grade backgrounds, head over to http://anime-backgrounds.tumblr.com/, from which I pinched some examples:

In some cases, the background art is given even more attention, becoming a driving artistic component of the series. A good example of this is Ghost in the Shell, where Mamoru Oshii ensured that every deeply detailed background helped build the richly textured and absorbing near-future world of the story. In Revolutionary Girl Utena director Kunihiko Ikuhara’s entangled his backgrounds with his narrative, using abstraction, architecture and visual metaphor to speak to the audience.  This striking use of background art has become a defining trait of his.

Generally speaking, anime can at least put out settings and background art that act as an unobtrusive back-drop. Mediocre series from several prolific studios take this route, producing basic, bland still art that’s almost schematic in nature. When they need a house in the background it’s just a house; the backgrounds are technically not lacking but do not portray a lived-in and realistic feeling or any sense of artistic beauty or creativity. This kind of art direction is doing its job if you don’t notice it at all.

I’ve only rarely seen anime with art poor enough to actually make itself jump out at you for the wrong reasons, and when it happens it’s like a rude slap in the face, totally taking you out of the scene. The anime slapping me without restraint this season is Illya. It first hit me when Illya and friends walk into Miyu’s beachside ‘mansion’.

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I say mansion, but it actually looks like more of a repurposed storage warehouse decorated by a photoshop artist. This is the kind of ugly monstrosity of a house I probably designed in The Sims when I was a kid. This  vast, empty entrance hall with its absolutely illogical design and awkward symmetry actually gave off an unsettling surreal feeling. For what purpose would such a room have been designed? An amphitheatre-like internal balcony, spare of all furniture save for a single cupboard, the lack of decoration, the fact there are no supporting columns, the placement of the rooms, it’s all so unnatural. I could go on, but I think it’s pretty clear that no one would build a house like this.

It’s also clear that the artist who did it copied and pasted objects into some kind of 3D schematic instead of drawing it. The windows, doors and railing posts are all identical, even down to the shading. That process isn’t intrinsically a bad thing, but it is when it is so glaringly evident as this. The castle of the Ainsworth family is just as bad, only on a much grander scale:

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Every part of it looks like it’s been copied from another part and I don’t believe for a second that anyone with such extreme wealth would build a castle so ugly and lacking in any kind of architectural personality. Maybe they could only afford a kit-home castle. Gross.

By the time later episodes introduced the snow-laden abandoned school I was legitimately disturbed by what I saw:

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You’ll need to click through to the full size images for these ones to see the problems:

 

On top of that, the layouts are totally dull and uninspired, seemingly framing scenes in such a way as to make the background art and composition job as simple as possible. Wherever they can, scenes are made flat, straight and symmetrical, often lined up with one or more structural geometries in the backgrounds. There is a clear attempt to avoid any difficult three-dimensional perspectives.

The composition and touch-up in post-production also seems intent on doing as little work as possible, with no interesting shadow, glare, glint or transparency effects being used. Illya has wowed me with its action animation in the past, and it usually animates itself passably, but if you look past the cute girls for a moment you’ll realise it’s a very ugly series.

Fortunately, the anime Orange achieved the opposite, bringing genuine beauty to the realistic setting of mountain-straddling urban Japan that borders on breathtaking at times.

Orange is also set in and around a Japanese school, which makes it all the more easy to compare and contrast with Illya’s abominable attempt.The difference is gobsmacking because Orange’s setting actually looks like a school rather than an unfinished soviet war prison.

Notice a few key points on Orange’s art:

  • You can see through the windows into the room detail.
  • The windows show reflection and glare.
  • The curtains are actually slightly transparent and they are all drawn at slightly different positions, kind of like how they would be IN REALITY.
  • The ground isn’t just a flat concrete texture as far as the eye can see but has stains, marks, manholes, joints, etc.
  • There is glare of harsh sunlight and shadows cast naturally throughout all of the background objects rather than starkly applied only when a cel or object clearly calls for it. The absence of sun or shadow in Illya’s world is a big part of how lifeless it feels.
  • All of the signs, noticeboards etc are not copied in from some other templates but drawn as part of the background.
  • The scenes are often shot at interesting angles not aligned dead-on with building edges and faces.
  • The blackboards have clear chalk-rub smears.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Orange good, Illya bad.

The man in charge of Illya’s art is Hiroshi Morikawa, associated with Studio Kaimu, who has an extensive history generating backgrounds but is brand new to the role of art director. This is a change – Takeshi Tateishi, associated with the preferable Studio Tulip, handled the previous two seasons. A note on Takeshi – he has two ANN entries (1 , 2) but is actually the one person.

The change is certainly noticeable – although IIlya has always had the same kind of approach to art direction, in this latest season it has demonstrably fallen in terms of quality. The episode credits for background art reveal that it’s largely handled by three studios, the aforementioned Kaimu, and the Korean companies DR MOVIE and GACHI PRODUCTION. The involvement of DR MOVIE and GACHI PRODUCTION doesn’t say a lot in and of itself, as they are widespread in the industry and are secondary artists supporting Kaimu (GACHI PRODUCTION even had a hand in production art on an Orange episode). However, the last time Morikawa, Kaimu and these two companies comprised the art department for a series was Subete ga F ni Naru and that show had similarly bland background work.

This time, Morikawa has been elevated from just a background artist to the art director. I also suspect that, as Illya’s Studio Kaimu credits lists no names under it, it largely refers to Morikawa himself. A stretched one-man lead background artist with no experienced art director oversight and only offshore companies to back him up is a recipe for disaster.

Was the change in art direction to try and tackle the alternate winter world in a different way? Maybe. To be fair to Morikawa, the few ‘money-shot’ depictions of snow-covered forests didn’t look too shabby. Or perhaps it was an economic measure. I suspect Morikawa comes cheap, given his obvious skill for copying and pasting objects, stretching textures and using few staff. This would certainly save a lot of effort and time compared to hand painted artworks such as those used on Orange. Whatever the reason, it backfired and  it’s a bad look for directors Masato Jinbo and Shin Oonuma. The higher-ups of the Illya franchise need to have a good hard think about whether they still care about the series or not, because it sure looks like they don’t.

At the end of the day here, the real difference is that the art direction in Orange is geared toward a fine art approach, which is probably considered to be the norm for anime. It’s particularly good at it, but it’s not the talent of the artists behind this show that so starkly differentiates it from Illya – the fact is that Illya takes a wholly different approach. Illya’s art direction is about constructing a perfunctory back-drop – it just has to be a place with the requisite details and objects present. The episode director asks for a scene in a school and he gets the bare-bones recognition level school we see. There’s no art in it at all, it does not portray a world or support the atmosphere of the show, it’s just there. However this season of Illya is even worse – it’s not ‘just there’, it’s glaringly, overwhelmingly bad.

 

 

 

Erased – Digging Deeper

Over the last couple of years, I can see that my focus on this blog has pivoted from general anime enthusiasm toward celebrating a very particular strain of anime with a gushing, obsessive level of discussion. The kind of anime I’m talking about here isn’t just ‘good anime’, an anime that ticks all the boxes of entertainment, or even anime that I think are amazingly produced. Rather, it’s that anime that comes along once in a while and strikes a chord within me in some intangible and unexpected way. There was Love Lab with its effervescent characterful animation, Ping Pong with its wobbly, skewed aesthetic and Yozakura Quartet that blew me away with its fresh, vivacious webgen production, and of course many more that I haven’t been able to talk about yet. But the thing I’ve found with each of them is that their resonating charm was fuelled by the very personal creative impulses, ambitions and talents of the people behind them. The latest series to move me in this way was Erased, or Boku Dake ga Inai Machi.

Boku ga Inai Machi (or Erased) is an anime adaptation of a popular seinen manga series by Kei Sanbe, and seems to have been met with universal praise from viewers around the world. The author takes the basic ingredients of crime-thriller and childhood coming-of-age drama, throws in a hint of time travel and seamlessly blends them together into a riveting, and suspenseful story. After being framed for murder the protagonist, Satoru, is unwittingly thrown back in time to his childhood where he must reach out to those around him and muster his personal resolve to try and outwit a cunning and cruel serial killer. Much has been written about the show’s riveting story but most critics seem unable to put their finger on why they appreciated the production side of things. I am going to try put my finger on it! Looking into it, I soon found that, counter to the case in many anime, its excellence is largely due to the man in the proverbial director’s chair, Ito Tomohiko.

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Tomohiko Ito

Director Ito has already proven himself worthy as a producer with his directorial work on Sword Art Online and Silver Spoon at A-1 Productions. An antithesis to studios like Trigger or Kyoto Animation, A-1 Pictures’ core, permanent staff are just a small group of producers and digital effect/CG artists – their animators are employed on a casual as-need basis. This is why there is no A-1 Pictures ‘look’ beyond their post-production finish standards and CG work. As such, it falls to the director to assemble the key creative team that will drive the style and quality of the production, and Ito was easily up to the task. But while these previous outings were polished and successful, Erased is perhaps the first time we’ve seen Ito rise well above the perfunctory and flex his creative muscles as director.

One reason for this might be that he has both a history and an interest in the thriller genre, and originally started in the industry at Madhouse working on serious anime with a suspenseful edge such as Monster and Death Note. Since moving on from Madhouse and being in charge of more light-hearted quintessentially ‘anime’ works he has expressed a desire to sink his teeth into something more in this vein. When one of his colleagues showed him the Erased manga years ago it obviously resonated with him as he set to work rallying Aniplex (A-1 Picture’s parent company) directly to launch an anime adaptation with him as director.

As a fan of thrillers, he has clearly relished the role. He made a conscious effort to ramp up the feeling of suspense and excitement in the show by drawing inspiration from Hollywood thrillers rather than following the approach of Japanese TV thrillers or similar anime. For example, while the show is set in real parts of Hokkaido, the stark and sombre way they portrayed their locations was strongly influenced by the Danish crime drama series The Killing, set in Copenhagen. Ito has said that the butterfly that appears throughout the show whenever Satoru jumps through time is an homage to another thriller work (but won’t say which one! – he did say it’s not Butterfly Effect though). Overall, there was a push to make Erased feel exciting and cinematic in a Hollywood thriller kind of way.

The butterfly imagery id a homage to a thriller
The butterfly imagery id a homage to a thriller

This push was made possible by Ito’s industrious style of directing, as someone who really throws himself at every production. When he took on Silver Spoon he visited agricultural schools and ate a lot of food to understand the setting of the series. For Sword Art Online, he spent a solid week going to net cafes after work and staying up late into the night playing MMORPGs to get a sense of how people interacted in online games. For the later series of Sword Art, to help portray realistic gun battles he went shooting. Let’s hope no practical experience was needed in portraying the dark kidnappings of Erased! But this all goes to show that Ito truly pursues every avenue to excel, tinkering with many realms of production that many directors are happy to overlook. This may be truer in the case of Erased than ever before.

One thing I noticed pretty quickly when watching the show is that it didn’t sound like just another run-of-the-mill anime; the voice acting felt refreshing and somehow more natural. Rather than the crisp, familiar voices of the industry staples, the protagonist was handled by film actors, both for his young and old versions. To make the two voices feel like they really belonged to the same character, all of young Satoru’s lines were read by his older counterpart, so that his adult inflections and tones could be better reflected. Going even further, in order to increase the natural, conversational feel of the dialogue there was a conscious decision to ensure that the voice actors were together to record their lines in, rather than allowing them to record their lines independently (a common occurrence in the industry for in-demand seiyuu). The sound effects too, were consciously used to add suspense, drawing from  western fields and the way they use bangs, rumbles or other noises to surprise and unsettle the viewer.

However, Ito’s stamp leaves its biggest imprint on the series’ visual design. Rather than being forged from the fires of animation like many notable directors, Ito hails from a storyboarding and production setting background, and that enables him to expertly and holistically control the look of the show from the ground up. He put a huge creative signature on the show by going against the grain of the normal adaptation storyboarding process, instructing his storyboarders not to replicate panels from the manga but to envision how the layouts and scenes can evoke a cinematic feel that would keep people’s attention hooked. He used a number of approaches to try and achieve this.

Attention was paid to the use of visual effects to keep the series from feeling flat – flicking to shots of the spinning wheel of film and other visually compelling shots were used to spice up the flow.

Perhaps his most apparent imprints on the look of the series is his instruction to staff to pay close attention to backlighting – how light from outside windows, streetlights, etc can cast visual depth into shots. This may be something he picked up an appreciation for when working on Guilty Crown, which used lighting to superb effect. The general aesthetic of the show bows to this edict wherever possible and gives it a strong cinematic flavour. At times the use of light and shadow is used to dramatically ramp up the tension, other times it simply adds to the realistic feel the show aims for by ensuring that the lighting of each scene is carefully rendered as it would be in real life – no scenes are simply bright for the sake of presenting the characters and many occur only under the light cast from a TV or nearby street lamps. The characters being enclosed by darkness in these night scenes gives a sense of dread and unease.

Ito didn’t just ensure that the series felt realistic and visually engaging.  As a storyboarder inspired to join the industry after seeing Evangelion, it certainly looks as though he carried the influence of Hideki Anno’s work throughout his career and it’s no less apparent here. Ito uses the space between characters as well as stark lighting to symbolic effect, treating layouts more as paintings and works of art than stages for the characters. By that I don’t just mean he just tries to make them pretty, but he crafts them to convey visual metaphor and evoke particular emotions. He’ll do things like place two characters on either side of a clear division between light and shadow, or use perspective and composition to emphasise which character is in control or more powerful. Similarly, he’ll use open spaces to depict emotional distance, and occasionally jarringly centred shots to show urgency or tension. This is something that Evangelion in particular is famous for.

Erased (Ito Tomohiko Storyboarded):

Evangelion (Hideaki Anno Storyboarded):

As a result, the series has a very conscious use of layout and composition to help underpin the emotion of the scenes. The childhood scenes pull the camera back so that characters appear small, placing them in large, open spaces.  This, combined with the very deliberate effort to frame many shots as though the children are being watched, gives a real sense of helplessness and danger.

His repertoire is taken a step further in Erased, introducing a very strong focus on the use of colours in shots to symbolise emotions. All throughout the series, he paints with reds and blues at every possible opportunity to reinforce the mood of the scene.

Early in the series, it becomes clear that red is associated with danger and isolation while blue is associated with safety and family as a kind of dichotomy between Satoru with a loving mother and the lonely victim Kayo whose only family are relentlessly abusive. As the series develops I think the director used this association to deliver extra suspense and tension in many of his scenes. Maybe even subconsciously, I suspect much of Erased audience felt a wave of dread when the background changed to red in the sequence with Satoru in the car with the killer because this colour association had been woven through the show up until that point. Of course, none of this is brand new in the realm of visual storytelling, but Ito ensures it is delivered with just enough nuance that you feel its impact without necessarily noticing it on screen.

Ito’s deft handling of storyboarding, layout and general direction may have developed while working under super-director Mamoru Hosoda, having served as assistant director on The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars.  Given his Eva influences it’s no surprise that his work contains the creative DNA of Kunihiko Ikuhara and Osamu Dezaki.  Like Hosoda, Ito takes a naturalistic approach to symbolic framing, preferring to place his characters in a real space, rather than the surreal and arbitrary stages of Ikuhara and Dezaki.  His use of framing seems to parallel some Anno’s cinematic inspirations, such as the use of minimalist camera work.

Layouts from Ito’s Kekkai Sensen 11:

Ikuhara’s style:

Hideaki Anno style:

His background may not be in genga, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate animation. Like Sword Art Online before it, Erased has its fair share of charismatic animation. Again, it may be his time under Hosoda that gave him some of this appreciation, or at least the production know-how to getting this animation created. He certainly picked the right chief animation director for SAO, and Keigo Sasaki is a similarly good fit for Erased, bringing consistent, polished art and moments of realistic, yet emotive character animation. The animation highlight of the series was undoubtedly episode 3, spearheaded by Takahiro Shikama.

Shikama was the director, storyboarder and animation director for that episode and he really shines, delivering what is, in my view, the best episode of the series. It’s certainly the episode that first made me feel like Erased was something special. His storyboarding work applies Ito’s direction to superb effect creating an episode that is brimming with dramatic tension at every step. He harnesses a number of animators to delivery some powerful scenes of animation such as the ice-skating race (handled by Shikama himself) and the romantic scene at the end of Satoru and Kayo being surrounded by running foxes (handled by Takahito Sakazume). Takahiro Shikama was a major player in the production of Sword Art Online, being the main action animation director for the first season. But this is the first time he has had the opportunity to show his mettle at the director level. I hope he gets the opportunity more in the future!

One area it’s clear that director Ito is not as confident in is the writing. Erased requires delicate portrayals of family life and domestic abuse, whereas Ito had trouble even trying to portray intimate moments between Asuna and Kirito (as apparently all the staff were single). So it’s very fortunate that he found a great screenwriter in Taku Kishimoto.

More than just a thriller, Erased scratches beneath the surface of events and evokes profound human drama in its storytelling. From the harrowed Hinazuki trapped in a miserable life of abuse at the hands of her mother, to the protagonist’s encountering true feeling and meaning his life through reliving his past, Erased is steeped in emotion. Taku Kishimoto is in charge of the story for the series and almost certainly is to thank for this, having written the entire script for the anime adaptation of Usagi Drop and Silver Spoon (also under director Ito). Erased is an-edge-of-your seat thriller made all the more intense because you feel so much for those involved that every dangerous development is like a kick in the gut; the killer isn’t just after a random kid, they’re after Hinazuki.

Interestingly, I don’t think the episodes that Ito storyboarded himself were the strongest. While he has a history of storyboarding work, on review, I don’t see him as being particularly talented at it (except maybe for Kekkai Sensen episode 11). Ito isn’t a great anime director because he is a great artist but, more in the vein of Kenji Kamiyama or Mamoru Oshii, it’s because he is full of high-level ideas and has the ability to harness the creative talents of those under him to weave those ideas through every level and every facet of his productions. He doesn’t fall into the trap of many anime directors, of focusing on just he animation, or just the story, but he is able to take a step back and see the whole picture, how every part of an anime production can be utilised in symphony to render a vision. I see real potential for Ito to fall into the hall of great anime director’s and avidly await his first opportunity to direct an original series.