The most satisfying episode this entire season, as well as fantastic news for the studio’s future – and perhaps present already.
Key Animation: Nobuaki Maruki, Nami Iwasaki, Sana Suzuki, Ayaka Nagahama, Shiho Morisaki, Kyohei Ando
Many alarms were ringing before this episode. Titledrops are reserved for important moments, and it was finally time to tackle Asuka’s situation which had been hinted at for almost two seasons. On a production level, it was the first chance for one of KyoAni’s star directors to handle a full episode; Taichi Ishidate had been too busy to do anything but draw some key animation during the first season, and so far his season 2 output had been limited to direction on a light episode someone else storyboarded, which had restrained him from both narrative and creative standpoints. This was the big opportunity he was presented with and he had no intention of wasting it.
The episode is a stream of expressiveness from beginning to end, taking on different registers but always conveying lots of emotion; whether it’s a static shot portraying Kumiko’s worries simply by contrast to her friends’ poses, an obscene display of rich motion, or Reina’s silent realization about Taki’s relationship – this last one was bound to happen, and I appreciate her relatively calm reaction to it. Reina might wish to be a special being, but she’s a smart girl who deep inside was always aware her crush for a teacher didn’t have much of a future. All that’s left now is for her to get it out and move on.
But Reina is simply a guest in this episode, which takes Kumiko on a quest to convince Asuka’s mother to allow her daughter’s return to the band. A half-baked plan conceived by her surprisingly silly upperclassman that crumbles immediately, since her parents aren’t around. Neither of them, as Kumiko comes to know that they got divorced many years ago, and that her father is none other but the famous euphonium player whose music and books have been appearing throughout the series. Both of them share a link of sorts, since they were introduced to the instrument by the same person. In Asuka’s case it was through a package sent by her missing dad, containing a letter, a notebook with the song she’s been playing all along, and of course the euphonium itself. That was the moment she discovered the joy of performing, but also the beginning of a conflict with her mom who firmly opposed her playing. An awkward position that somehow stayed in stalemate for years, until Asuka saw her dad would be one of the judges for the Nationals and let her grades slip after getting overly anxious; the flashbacks are effective for once here, reminding the viewer of Asuka’s weirdly motivated speech from a few episodes back, finally giving context to a moment that felt off.
This long and tense conversation is elevated by the ludicrous care put into the episode. Even something as casual as Kumiko’s legs falling asleep is more than an amusing relief; Asuka’s home is very Japanese in style unlike Kumiko’s, who isn’t used to sitting traditionally and is shown to be uncomfortable throughout the entire scene. You could link that to the strictness of their upbringing – which Asuka clearly rejects – but even if that isn’t fully intended, moments like that give lots of texture. Some shots might even go a bit overboard with their attempt to convey information, like this sequence that shows Asuka overwhelming Kumiko rather literally. This is no surprise – Taichi Ishidate isn’t as naturally delicate or subtle as other directors at the studio. He’s an action and effects animator at soul, whose undoubted character acting mastery seems to come more from the fact that he’s stayed at the company for a long time, rather than something he would naturally develop otherwise. Even when it comes to his hobbies, he’s more likely to end up watching a bombastic Hollywood film than some of his peers, who would instead seek arthouse cinema. But that obviously doesn’t make him a hopeless brute. He has a spectacular sense for color, which is only developing further with the advances of anime postprocessing. Asuka is wary of her friends meddling with her delicate situation, but she’s also aware of Kumiko’s presence as an actual euphonium who supports the band. Her complex problems weren’t going to get fixed overnight, so all she secretly sought was support, someone who wants to listen to her personally to find the joy she got playing as a kid. Once Kumiko passionately offers that, Ishidate immediately alters the lighting to depict the warmer mood. The gorgeous final scene feels like a celebration he definitely earned.
But as spectacular as Ishidate’s job was, when it comes to the staff someone else stood out even more. I can’t stress out enough how exceptional Akiko Takase’s full debut as animation director was. As I mentioned a while back when she had her training episode, her career has been progressing unusually fast to begin with; she graduated from university in 2013 and joined Kyoto Animation later that year, going straight to key animation for rather important episodes. She must have taken a liking to skipping steps, since she was also trusted with not only the novel designs but also the promotional video for Violet Evergarden, before joining the roster of animation directors at the studio now. Her debut episode would be praiseworthy for an ace animator with decades of experience, let alone a young newbie. The obscene level of detail rivals the studio’s supervisors who excel in that field, but she clearly values motion as the root of expression in animation, as proven by the numerous simply excellent cuts. I get the feeling that Ishidate himself at least did the rough drawings for the incredible scene between Kumiko and Reina, and its similarity with another perfectly eloquent sequence after that makes me think they shared the same key animator – perhaps Nobuaki Maruki. The consistent excellence of the episode’s animation definitely proves Takase did an excellent job with her corrections either way, keeping it all lively yet absurdly polished. Every now and then, KyoAni’s endless cycle of talent growth births a veritable animation monster, and it’s starting to feel like Takase’s case is the most exceptional one since Yukiko Horiguchi’s irruption.
The effectiveness of the Ishidate & Takase duo is of course significative beyond this episode, since they’re bound to be the core staff of the upcoming Violet Evergarden anime. Under normal circumstances the project would require a more experienced animator to handle the character designs and chief animation director role for the full production, but with Takase having proven herself I feel like that might not be needed at all. If this is what she can pull off with only 6 key animators then yes, she’s definitely ready. Bring it on.
For once we know nothing about the upcoming staff, so I’m going to hope for something more restrained again because I need a break after this ridiculous episode.