Little Witch Academia, Big Animation Festival.
Key Animation: Megumi Kagawa, Takafumi Hori, Naoki Takeda, Michelle Sugimoto, Yuto Kaneko, Yukina Kai, Kai Ikarashi, Kana Yamaguchi, Tetsuya Hasegawa, Hideki Nakagawa, Rie Ishige, Takeshi Ikezawa, Masaru Sakamoto, Kengo Saito, Shiori Miyazaki, Mayumi Nakamura, Eimi Tamura, Shouta Sannomiya, Masahiko Ishiyama
Welcome all, including the people who will read this at least 3 months after I write it because Netflix decided to hold hostage arguably the most anticipated anime this season. You’ve shown great restraint and deserve a nice article. I feel like some introductions are due for the first episode, although I would rather not overwhelm people with way too much information from the get-go; we have 24 episodes ahead of us still after all, so there’s no need to learn everything about all the staff involved right now. In that sense, I’ll spare you an in-depth profile of Yoh Yoshinari – not only is he rather well known at this point, but as the series director he’ll accompany us all the way through. Knowing he was the animation soul of modern Gainax and now Trigger’s ace, and as much of a veritable animation fanatic as a top animator himself, is all you really require for now.
Looking at Little Witch Academia’s origins seems like a better starting point for this coverage, due to the effects those unusual circumstances still have on the project. The Young Animator Training Project is a government-funded program that should be fairly self-explanatory with a title like that; 4 studios each year are given money to fund a short film, the production of which must entail a small group of young animators being tutored by experienced artists. Little Witch Academia was born as part of that initiative (under Anime Mirai back then, now called Anime Tamago) and featured the newcomers (新人原画) Yuuto Kaneko, Masaru Sakamoto, Shouta Sannomiya, Hisao Dendo and Shuhei Handa learning from the instructor animators (指導原画/中堅原画) Yusuke Yoshigaki, Takafumi Hori and Yoneyama Mai, all under the strict supervision of Yoshinari himself. There are some rarely mentioned caveats to this, however. To begin with, industry members themselves have criticized the program, pointing out that if a studio requires this initiative then something about their model is broken anyway, and how it has no means to ensure the growth after the 6 months they make them actually spend together. And perhaps more importantly, the fact that the Young Animator part of the Training Project is questionable; Little Witch Academia is by all means a success story, but it’s also important to understand that the crew was already in their late 20s when the original film was made – Masaru Sakamoto had become an animation director a couple years prior to that, and all of them had their roots back in Gainax. But even if the program isn’t the industry-saving, talent-nurturing panacea it wants to be sold as, Little Witch Academia was an incredible experience for that crew, one that they loved despite the harshness of having to work with a true genius animator. The influence Yoshinari has on their drawings is immense to this day still, and they treasured that chance so much they gladly came back to Little Witch Academia’s sequel – and now to the TV series! Actual links were created then, either as genuine Trigger employees or freelance artists, so it’s no surprise to see them back. They’ve even managed to climb the ranks; Sannomiya is making its magical world richer through some art design tasks, Yuto Kaneko will now supervise other people’s drawings as one of the animation directors, and Shuhei Handa has done a satisfactory job taking over his idol Yoshinari as the TV show’s main character designer. The so called Yoshinari Children keep maturing.
Since we’re talking about elements that have evolved, I feel it’s important to also talk about the less fortunate changes. A special 6 month program for 24 minutes and a theatrical sequel are fundamentally different from a 2 cours TV production, so it’s understandable that some sacrifices must be made. Namely, more restrain when compared to the simply obscene amount of motion that Little Witch Academia originally had. Most noticeably during the character scenes, which have preserved their delightful cartoony sensibilities (although with slightly less looseness in general) but simply don’t move as much. The action has so far suffered less, and either way Little Witch Academia is shaping up to be a spectacular TV series; lesser when compared to the original, but perhaps similarly amazing when considering its own league. It could very well have started off with something as mind-boggling as its predecessors, but I’d rather the project doesn’t implode in an attempt to flex its muscles. Sadly, it’s not as if all changes are caused to accommodate the new production limitations; Yuuji Kaneko’s departure as the art director has been flat out a downgrade, one we can blame on conflicting schedules. The world they inhabit is still brimming with whimsical magic and charm of course, it’s not the design work that decayed but the execution of those concepts. Without Kaneko’s painted work, his team and even beloved Studio Pablo’s aid, the comparisons with existing scenery hurt – and some of the new background art is simply poor, disregarding all context. Even the palette isn’t quite the same, and colors aren’t quite as attractive this time around. The same person is responsible for them, but chances are this is also related to Kaneko leaving; the ‘art director’ role doesn’t grant you all the responsibility western fans would think, as it focuses mostly on the backgrounds, but there always needs to be coherence between the world and all the elements colored within it. Considering Kaneko’s known big input on the palette to define moods, and how he even personally colored Yoshinari’s storyboards, it’s understandable that losing him was a hard blow in this aspect as well.
That said, characterizing this series solely as ‘Little Witch Academia, except a bit worse’ would be unfair. For one, it’s really satisfying to watch an iteration of this franchise that isn’t preoccupied with immediately reaching a goal. I’m not sure if it’s fair to call the TV show ‘what LWA was always meant to be’ either, but being allowed this much breathing room seems to help a lot. Concepts that only existed in the background before to give texture to the world seem like they’ll be developed this time around; the world’s elitist attitude towards commoners that don’t belong to magic families is explicitly stated and present even in details like a pamphlet that flashes the screen very briefly. Retracing steps was required for this retelling as well, and so far they’ve done a good job. Shiny Chariot’s new performance doesn’t come close to the majesty the original had, but it’s still a memorable moment that gets across how influential that was for the protagonist Akko. Takafumi Hori’s animation, which might very well beat the first fireworks spectacle, is a great asset this time around. While he has more of an individual personality as an animator than the Yoshinari Children, working on Little Witch Academia also changed his career. He found a kindred spirit in Yoshinari, as both of them have notorious western animator influences, and his style – particularly the effects – was strongly influenced by his new idol henceforth. As the explicit Main Animator for the project, we can look forward to plenty more of his fantastic work.
Since the rest of the episode was dedicated to the first meeting of the trio we already know – and I don’t mean this as criticism, it felt very natural and as charming as ever – I would rather talk about the animation crew a little bit more. Handa’s supervision was unsurprisingly competent, despite having to live up to incredibly high standards – very expressive drawings all the way through! The key animation lineup was also rather strong in expected ways, yet also containing some surprises. Lots of returning Little Witch Academia staff and recurring Trigger animators/associated freelancers (though with more presence of the new generations, as opposed to the big Gainax names people think of), accompanied by a big twist in the form of Megumi Kagawa; the top key animator was indeed one of Ghibli’s best known women, a very experienced artist known for her delicate work. You’ll be hearing the term Post-Ghibli Industry quite a bit in the next few years, as the excellent artists who mostly worked on their films find new jobs in the industry. Makoto Shinkai’s behemoth hit Your Name benefited from that to some degree already, and even this show has exploited the situation a bit. Leaving names aside, I’d have a hard time picking my favorite piece of animation – Hori’s intro is technically the strongest, but Masaru Sakamoto’s finisher might be the most charismatic set of cuts. I suppose there are way worse fates that being undecided about which of the many fantastic scenes I liked the most. Keep them coming!
I told myself I would keep the weekly coverage posts shorter so that people aren’t overwhelmed and then I immediately failed. One day I’ll learn to shut up faster, I swear. But more importantly, who allowed Imaishi to approach Yoshinari while he was storyboarding and caused the entire first episode to be a magical crotch problem.
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