A minor narrative misstep, relatively shielded by impeccable execution.
Key Animation: Seiichi Akitake, Hiroshi Karata, Kunihiro Hane, Taira Yamaguchi, Kanae Okura
I will start by saying I had some fundamental issues with the episode for a change. Euphonium’s approach has always been to carefully contextualize the novels’ content, bringing it to life by making the characters act as if they were spurred by the feelings originally described by the writer. The problem arises when one of those feelings is unsalvageable. Reina’s teenage crush is perfectly believable considering her special brand of eccentricity, and the episode even sold – a bit too late – how it began. But being coherent doesn’t translate into being satisfying, and the series definitely didn’t need to go off track so much to confirm her doomed first love is, in fact, doomed. The audience knows it, her best friend knows it, and even she herself does deep inside. Taking an entire episode for her to even start to get over it wasn’t the best idea. Let’s file this one under TV anime’s inherent structure problems. Maybe the new anime film boom is even better than it seemed. But I digress.
With that out the way, Euphonium is still Euphonium, and Euphonium is kind of excellent. The episode is once again sprinkled with small triumphs, like Yuuko’s palpable worry for Reina before eventually speaking out to her, and the conversation between Natsuki and Asuka that fully reintegrates the latter into the band. All delightful interactions framed with obvious and effective intent, that work on a character level and with the club as its own small microcosm. And as much as I’ve talked about this week feeling like a misguided effort, the big moments are still made powerful through sheer skill. In that regard, the most interesting scene this time around is the comeback to Mount Daikichi, one of the most memorable scenarios of the first season. Either by coincidence or due to sharp foresight, Haruka Fujita storyboarded this episode like she did on that occasion, and she cleverly mirrored many shots to use the contrast in her favor; Kumiko’s curiosity for the friend she wants to get closer to is replaced by the awkwardness dominating their relationship currently. This is no longer a dream-like summer night, but a cold confrontation during fall, a change perceptible in both attitude and their outfits. Both scenes end in similar fashion with a very physical conclusion, but whereas the original was a beautiful intimate instant, this time we see Kumiko trying to comfort Reina in a way her hollow words can’t. Perhaps you could argue that seeing the differences between that episode (directed by Fujita herself) and this one (on Ogawa’s hands) would highlight their directional approaches, since they’re very similar storyboards developed by two different creators. I don’t think that would be fair, however – the playing field isn’t level, and the disparities between these episodes are mostly born from the attempt to capture distinct moods rather than personal preferences of the creators.
This episode happens to be a good chance to quickly explain how the animation process is organized at the studio. If you look at the list of key animators you might notice something, aside from the fact that once again it required very few people to deliver high quality work. This exact same crew appeared credited as a block in episode 4. If you look up the credits I’ve been including further, you’ll see other suspicious coincidences, like episode 2 and episode 9 also sharing lineups. That is because key animator units are formed at the company for each project, to distribute the workload appropriately. Whenever I talk about anime production I make sure to point out that it’s a series of parallel processes; the second episode doesn’t start getting animated the moment the first one is finished, otherwise barely any series would manage to air even half their episodes. To achieve this, every single studio out there makes use of outsourcing. While the core team works on the first episode, second to fourth will already be on the hands of other groups, both in-house and from other companies, meaning that if you’re lucky you might see the main staff back after a month’s worth of broadcast. What this exactly entails depends on the amount of talent available; particularly strong projects might be able to keep the process itself within one company by making use of lots of freelance connections, while regular endeavors have to ship the entire production line of multiple episodes to other studios.
As you might be aware though, KyoAni happens to be the one exception here. Every episode is directed, storyboarded, supervised and animated by the studio’s full-time employees. And to keep the high standards they’re proud of, that means strong management is required – hence the creation of those key animator units I mentioned. These groups generally contain from a handful to a dozen key animators, which is the reason people have come to assume that’s the average number of artists it takes to complete an episode at the studio. The consistence in that regard is no accident however, it only happens because we see the exact same groups of people getting credited over and over. There’s a rotation similar to the one for directors, storyboarders and animation directors – whom these units are attached to – that keep alternating until it’s their turn again. This isn’t perfectly regular of course, since productions aren’t even rides and some episodes are simply more demanding; this is why you’ll see special occasions with multiple units at work, as well as members leaving their post to do some assistance and clean-up work. But for the most part an order is kept, to the point that outsiders can easily spot how the workload was split without the need of insider information.
Inner working details would be of little interest if this model wasn’t successful, though. As much as I find intrinsic interest in anime production, the reason KyoAni in particular have become a recurring element on this site is because their output is as exceptional as their practices. A handful of key animators regularly being enough to finish an episode seems like a miracle in the current latenight ecosystem, but anyone who has looked at credits from older anime will realize that it’s how things used to work before overproduction spread resources way too thin. Again, there’s more to them than that; having skilled artists lead by fantastic animation directors like Chiyoko Ueno means these generally small teams can depict every gesture and strand of hair beautifully. Thinking you could replicate their achievements just by asking more studios to transition into a similar model by limiting their output is naïve and even a bit irresponsible, but this is by all means what the industry should ideally strive for.
Now excuse me while I scream about Kigami and Yamada’s performance episode coming up next.
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