Before enjoying another look at the craft of this series and the fascinating vision of its key creators, there’s something more serious we must talk about. Even if this project by itself wasn’t necessarily at fault, someone died of overwork while producing this episode. That’s not something we should skip over. Let this be a final farewell to Kazunori Mizuno.
Storyboard: Yoshimi Itazu
Episode Direction: Ogura Shirakawa (Kazunori Mizuno), Masahiko Murata, Mamoru Taisuke
Chief Animation Director: Takahiro Chiba, Masayuki Honda
Action Animation Direction: Takashi Mukouda
Animation Direction: Megumi Tomita
Assistant Animation Director: Kumiko Horikoshi, Yasuhiko Kanezuka
Key Animation: Daisuke Tsumagari, Retsu Okawara, Anna Yamaguchi, Yuri Ichinose, Hiromi Yoshinuma, Kaori Takahashi, Tamako Horiuchi, Zenjirou Ukulele, Mariko Emori, Nobutaka Masuda, Hisashi Samejima, Kim Je-Hyeong, Mori Tominaga, Miyako Matsumoto, Hiromi Okazaki, Takenori Tsukuma, Kensuke Watanabe, Yasuhiko Kanezuka, Takahiro Fujii
Production Assistance: Pierrot
The regularly-scheduled look at the craft can wait, because there’s something more important to address. Back in March it was reported that 52yo director Kazunori Mizuno had passed away, though the news only seemed to catch on weeks later when it was mentioned that he died at the studio, while taking a short nap he never woke up from. This got widely misreported as “Naruto animator dies”, following the exact same pattern seen when an A-1 production assistant committed suicide a few years ago; we’re in a fandom that loves to express their worry about industry problems, but where even the news outlets can’t be bothered to check the job of people who lose their lives to those issues. The least we can do is to take a proper look at the events.
Mizuno had made a name for himself as an action storyboarder and director despite not having joined the industry as an animator, which is quite unusual; it’s not that he was unable to draw, but it wasn’t his area of expertise, thus making his solid grasp of action all the more impressive. While he was a freelancer for most of his career, it was at Pierrot in particular where he flourished, and so he kept a very strong link to the studio and related companies like Arcturus. Bleach firmly established him as a creator you shouldn’t miss after having shown promise in the likes of Yu Yu Hakusho, and in recent times his main occupation had been Naruto Shippuden. Its penultimate episode, directed and storyboarded by Mizuno, aired just 3 days before his death. People assumed his exhaustion was due to him preparing work for its successor Boruto, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, and that’s where this episode comes into play.
Welcome to the Ballroom #02 was outsourced to studio Pierrot – more on this later – and produced earlier this year. The harrowing proof is that the first person credited for directing the episode, Ogura Shirakawa, is none other than Kazunori Mizuno under a pen name; hence the unusual presence of three episode directors, since his Naruto comrades had to become his replacement in such dreadful circumstances. Rather than Boruto as assumed, it was juggling between Naruto and Ballroom that proved fatal. This is a tragedy on an individual level, but also highlights systemic problems that we must talk about properly. For starters, it’s yet more proof that framing the anime industry’s issues as “animators struggling” is absolute nonsense, since the conditions of plenty of other workers are also inhumane. Even amongst animators, in-betweeners and clean-up artists are worlds apart from chief animation directors, and the creators suffering actually range from painters to production assistants. While episode directors are as a whole in a much better position, their role involves so much more responsibility that the more sustainable wages don’t necessarily make up for it either. Oversimplifying this only causes harm, and yet the west in particular is somehow stuck on the vague idea that it’s just “animators” who are having a bad time.
The other point worth noting is that this happened to a production that is by itself rather healthy. Unlike most projects that have barely no lead time, we know for a fact that was in active production many months ago…but that’s obviously not enough, as this tragic event shows. That Mizuno was tasked to work on a solid production doesn’t matter when it was subcontracted to a messy studio and he personally had to keep on worrying about other projects, consistently devouring what should have been his sleep time. In an industry that majorly functions through freelancing, everything will be broken until virtually every studio, company, and project is sanitized. This is the reality of systemic issues, which are inescapable in this medium where every creator is linked. If studios manage to become more self-sustainable then we might get to the point where tackling individual cases is truly effective, but unless we get to that point, no project subcontracting work is safe.
Please be very skeptical of claims that international streaming services will “save” the industry by funneling money into it as well, since so far their projects have generally operated the same way when it comes to actually manufacturing the product; Yuasa’s upcoming Netflix series seems to be shaping up to be a healthily scheduled exception, but even then his small and manageable Studio Saru was already chasing different production models before. This is a complex set of issues that we can’t approach with the idea that we’re one press of a magical button away from “saving anime”. Change needs to happen immediately and on industry-wide levels. I don’t mean to say that small-scale initiatives aren’t positive, but beware that those are patchwork. More needs to be done.
There is no way to smoothly segue from such heavy topics to standard analysis, so allow me to pretend this is a different post altogether and start anew. This episode was…perfectly serviceable, I suppose. Poor attempts at levity like the dumb walking-on-the-girl-changing-clothes scene coexisted with potent isolated moments like Tatara spying on Hyodo’s practice, so as far as I’m concerned it all averaged to simply alright. There’s something definitely noteworthy, though: having an outsourced episode, let alone to Pierrot and this early, is quite the surprise. The first season of Haikyuu! had a handful of those, but ever since #15 the entire series – meaning the second half of the original plus two sequels – had all been produced by this team at Production I.G. I don’t know whether they were trying to build a healthy backlog before the broadcast or if they’re making this a regular occurrence in the staff rotation, but their approach has clearly changed.
The irony of the situation is that, in the end, this didn’t seem to save much time for the show’s key creators. The series director Yoshimi Itazu had to do extra work, the lesser drawings forced them to deploy both chief animation directors, and their ace animator had to redraw all tricky cuts himself. Chiba and Honda did a good job as supervisors – the detailed closeups of eyes stand out in particular – but it’s Takashi Mukouda who stole the show. His role of main action animation director means that he’s tasked with correcting all the intense dancing, but it seems that in cases like this where the drawings they received weren’t up to par, he’ll essentially make them all his own.
The positive side of this is that we got an episode filled with enchanting Mukouda dancing, ranging from comedic to awe-inspiring. This raw scene in particular, in which series director Itazu himself was involved too, is without a doubt my favorite so far. When I said that Ballroom could mark a move towards expressionism for this crew, it’s exactly this kind of work that I was talking about. As much as we can poke fun at the exaggerated necks, Ballroom is generally very mindful of realistic body movement, weight, even how articulations work. And then come scenes like this, where forms flow freely and anatomy isn’t a concern. The series is definitely aware of dancing’s duality of sport and art, which they’ve chosen to portray in this manner. Tatara was taken aback by what he felt was inhuman skill, which took the form of Mukouda’s almost Ohira-esque pencil lines. Itazu’s storyboard was a perfect complement as well, highlighting the impact Hyodo’s performance has on Tatara but also the clear barrier separating them at the moment. A very powerful scene making use of the tools only available to animation. Here’s hoping for more of this!