It didn’t have to be this way. Not that long ago, GoHands’ name inspired hopeful excitement amongst animation fans, rather than a mix of hysterical laughter and sheer horror. There’s no getting around the fact that Hand Shakers is one of the most hideous pieces of entertainment ever conceived, let alone anime. But even something this abysmal can become an educational experience, so let’s learn a bit about a young studio and how anime is put together.
Those of you acquainted with the industry are likely already aware that anime studios are interconnected by an immensely dense net of relationships, and that new companies rarely ever sprout from nowhere; new studios are almost always the offspring of existing ones, born from causes as varied as personal relationships souring, financial issues or the simple desire of a subset of staff to chase new goals. Looking back to 2008, you might notice that Satelight suffered a bit of a rough time. After wrapping up Macross Frontier, part of their Studio 1 staff resigned and went on to form studio 8-bit. And on top of that, a huge chunk of their Osaka substudio as well as some members from their Studio 2 founded GoHands. A blow for them, but honestly an exciting time for fans as this new studio packed quite the animation punch. That’s something they immediately demonstrated, as their debut project Princess Lover! turned out to be way better produced than you’d expect from an average eroge adaptation at the time. It had some highlights like episode 9 handled by an amazing trio with Norio Matsumoto, Tomoyuki Niho and Kenichi Kutsuna, enabled by Satelight Osaka’s involvement in legendary animation-friendly projects like Noein. Koichi Kikuta, who is currently both enamoring and pissing off two opposed halves of the fandom with his charismatic and loose KonoSuba designs, drew all the layouts for a couple of episodes and did a lot of key animation for it, then went on to become a recurring studio collaborator. Those are relationships that have decayed however, so it’s more important to look at the rest of the core staff that elevated the show. People like Shingo Suzuki, its Chief Animation Director who has codirected most of GoHands’ projects as of late – including Hand Shakers. Other artists like Makoto Furuta who key animated the entirety of Princess Lover! #4 and later became one of the studio’s character designers and chief animation directors, a role he once again has been granted for Hand Shakers. And let’s not forget arguably its greatest asset Hiroshi Okubo; an exceptional animator who didn’t only earn the explicit credit of Main Animator in many GoHands shows afterwards – and yes, you guessed it, that includes Hand Shakers – but even turned his fondness of threedimensional camera movement into a studio staple. As you can see, the figures who stood out in their debut work have pretty much shaped the studio.
There were more influential creators involved with the company of course, like Mardock Scramble and K’s director Susumu Kudo and the designer Jun Nakai, but those are bonds that appear to have been cut in the last few years. And beyond individual names, what’s also extremely important to understand was the company’s attempt to build a brand. As I mentioned while talking about SHAFT’s history, it’s extremely important for studios to stand out; these companies require a constant influx of contracts to stay afloat, so having a reputation that makes producers think of them over the countless other candidates when planning a project is an invaluable asset. A few select studios like BONES, KyoAni and ufotable have earned their fame due to exceptional production strength, but for everyone else the solution has to be more quirky. It’s honestly amusing to compare the contrast between western anime fans who attempt to characterize all studios as monolithic entities and their often fruitless struggle to establish a personality. Having a studio culture is by all means positive as it allows the development of styles that might have died prematurely in the wild, it’s only when the brand crushes the individuals that problems arise. And in GoHands’ case, their studio image exploded right in their face in a rainbow CG debris filled spinning camera spectacle. From Mardock Scramble onwards, and with rare exceptions with origins that kinda predated it like Seitokai Yakuindomo, their whole output has been dominated by very aggressive postprocessing. What started with color filters and fake grain has ended up becoming an assortment of digital nightmares. And this has been happening under many different photography and CG directors, proving the requests came from higher up – up until recently, the studio itself barely handled these tasks at all to begin with!
As a brief but important aside, I’d like to talk about anime’s composite to clarify some misconceptions. Most of the time, when you see fans bring up “filters and effects” it’s to complain that they exist at all. What they should understand however is that you can’t really have anime without them; simply placing animation over backgrounds makes them clash awkwardly, as they are two elements produced in entirely different ways by different departments. There’s a reason background animation cuts immediately stand out before they even move – our eyes detect that for once, the background and elements within it share a space. And to emulate that for regular scenes, some digital magic is required, which usually entails dealing with the lineart. Strong photography departments also try to apply more effects, with the goals of not only enhancing the atmosphere but creating cohesion by doing things like bathing characters and surroundings by similar lights. And to be honest, that’s an approach older than most people who will be reading this! As I said in the guide to anime production credits, a bunch of composite terms – including Photography of course – predate any sort of current tools. If you’re a purist who will reject any show with apparent digital effects, I’m afraid to say that any oldschool-looking ‘clean’ new series has been thoroughly processed as well. And for everyone else: as usual, it’s a matter of execution and not simply presence/absence of elements.
And with that out of the way, let’s tackle this monster. I wish it were as easy as saying that it’s just a matter of photography gone wrong. That there’s solid craft hiding behind awkward layers of effects. That’s arguably how it used to be, but not anymore. Natural is the last adjective I want to attach to this abomination, but Hand Shakers is an understandable consequence of the studio’s escalation. A perversion of ideas that might have been perfectly valid in isolation, but that rot and melted together into toxic rainbow ooze. The dynamic camerawork that started with Okubo’s spectacular animation was enabled further via 3DCG, and the reliance on digital work only made them push harder towards strong postprocessing. It feels like at some point the methods replaced the goals – scenes no longer are meant to achieve a result, they’re showcases of this particular aesthetic the studio’s built. Take that to the extreme, remove any semblance of artistic sensibilities and you get… this. A garish mix of what appears to be 3 different series, all of which bad enough to individually be the worst looking anime of the year. Even the normal scenes fail entirely at creating the illusion that characters, and just about any element drawn by the animators, belong to the same plane of existence as the backgrounds. Things only get worse when magic powers kick in, arriving with even more discordant elements and flaming chains that looked like they escaped from Blingee. I was amused but not at all surprised when I saw that Hand Shakers, unlike basically any other anime, has no Color Designer credited. Perhaps the first episode’s coordinator will handle the whole series, or perhaps the concept of color design has no place in this multichromatic nightmare.
The animation department doesn’t fare any better, despite having been the studio’s saving grace for quite a while. With misplaced enough priorities, no team of artists can produce decent work. The obsession with dynamic camerawork makes the production more taxing while barely leading to any exciting sequences, making action scenes headache-inducing and simple conversations just bizarre. The same could be said about the crowd movement cuts, which are very ambitious but only hurt the show; the animation directors clearly can’t keep up with the corrections, and they flat out had to reuse cuts from entirely different series. You don’t need any technical knowledge about the way scenes are constructed to realize the action falls apart in spectacular fashion as well. All the layouts are spatial nonsense, and the complete disconnect between all elements (which constantly move at different speeds) makes it all look floaty. Everything slides, and no interaction feels tactile at all, whether it’s hand drawn characters and backgrounds or 3DCG elements with the BGs. Anime isn’t bound by reality and has no obligation to obey to laws of physics. Subversion of the viewers’ expectations in these regards can even become a powerful tool. But this doesn’t toy with space in a deliberate way, it’s just an impossible to parse mess fueled by the idea of coolness of a teen overdosing on sugar. I’ve seen my fair share of ugly anime, and yet very few productions – if any at all – made me constantly wonder if they were truly real like this one.
At this point it should be obvious that we don’t like to focus on the negative on this site. Biting criticism can be fascinating, but there’s a deficit of appreciation of craft in the anime fandom so focusing on good stuff seems more appropriate. Something I saw on Twitter convinced me to give this article a go, however. Industry members are generally very polite towards their peers, and other companies are rarely ever mentioned with negative connotations even when there is personal beef. And yet, an important animator from a show I’m covering this season very naturally said they wanted Hiroshi Okubo’s animation away from GoHands. Something has gone wrong when you can’t even appreciate an exceptional artist’s work in isolation. So you know what – yes, he’s got a point. I wouldn’t mind seeing him leave. I wouldn’t mind seeing any of the talented individuals they’ve still got leave. As I said before, studios crumble and rise all the time. Maybe GoHands should just…go.
I hope this ended up being informative, even for the people who somehow can bring themselves to enjoy the studio’s output. I don’t want it to solely be a downer, and having people walk off with some extra knowledge and perhaps a smile would help justify having subjected myself to 24 minutes of that torture.
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