Severe production issues are never a comfortable topic, because the anime industry is filled with people who are genuinely struggling and that we shouldn’t make light of. But they’re also something we can’t gloss over either, so I’d like to use the latest news about a production disaster to clear up that particular situation and discuss the double edged sword of thorough character acting in TV anime. Whether you’ve been following Just Because! or not, you might want to pay attention to this.
Just Because! is an original series produced at lovely young studio Pine Jam that began its broadcast less than two weeks ago. As it turns out, that was more than enough for plenty of people to realize something was off. Ever since the beginning, and in spite of a multitude of animators supervising its early episodes, its art has been wildly inconsistent. Much more worryingly, the drawings are off within each individual cut; the way many scenes essentially melt because of the incongruent sequences of drawings prove that isn’t just an issue for the animation directors, but for the in-between checkers as well. These issues are so notorious that fans without much of an interest in animation will still notice them. In fact, I feel that it’s Sakuga (作画): Technically drawing pictures but more specifically animation. Western fans have long since appropriated the word to refer to instances of particularly good animation, in the same way that a subset of Japanese fans do. Pretty integral to our sites' brand. aficionados whom are more likely to forgive the show’s shortcomings than general viewers, because they’re attracted to its raw wonkiness that lets through the personality of individual animators. I’m personally in that camp, so I’ve been quite enjoying the show despite constantly predicting its doom.
As it turns out, those are no longer pessimistic conjectures so much as proven fact. Its debuting Series Director: (監督, kantoku): The person in charge of the entire production, both as a creative decision-maker and final supervisor. They outrank the rest of the staff and ultimately have the last word. Series with different levels of directors do exist however – Chief Director, Assistant Director, Series Episode Director, all sorts of non-standard roles. The hierarchy in those instances is a case by case scenario. Atsushi Kobayashi had a major breakdown on Twitter while talking about how much he’s been struggling with this project and its abysmal schedule. He has since then deleted the tweets blaming the studio, because burning bridges isn’t the smartest idea in an industry that relies so heavily on acquaintances, but fact remains that he was still correcting the Storyboard (絵コンテ, ekonte): The blueprints of animation. A series of usually simple drawings serving as anime's visual script, drawn on special sheets with fields for the animation cut number, notes for the staff and the matching lines of dialogue. More for episode 8…which will air in slightly over a month. Anime production isn’t a sequential monothreaded process, but that is still an insurmountable amount of work remaining considering the time they have available. Whether his comments about the production company are appropriate or not isn’t an argument that we should have based off limited information, but his anguish and tears are entirely genuine.
How did it get to that point then? Considering Kobayashi’s comments, I have no doubt that the planning and pre-production could have been handled better. Pine Jam are a small crew that split off from studio 8-bit just a couple of years ago, and after some Outsourcing: The process of subcontracting part of the work to other studios. Partial outsourcing is very common for tasks like key animation, coloring, backgrounds and the likes, but most TV anime also has instances of full outsourcing (グロス) where an episode is entirely handled by a different studio. work for series like their beloved Aikatsu, debuted on their own in 2016 with the production of MahoIi. And that was quite the start! The short series was a showcase of talent by a certain crew of young creators, which to this date still assists the studio. When they transitioned to full length productions with Gamers!, it was made clear that they couldn’t maintain the polish in large-scale efforts, but also that their passion for animation and penchant for loose expression was here to stay. And there comes Just Because…airing right as Gamers! ended. Despite serving under a different key staff and relying on other companies, I’m sure you can see the problem with a tiny new studio attempting two consecutive projects. If their management was anything less than excellent, this was going to be a problem.
The thing is, it shouldn’t have been a mortal wound. Anime is sadly used to operating under asphyxiating deadlines after all, and Just Because’s low-key urban tale could have been a relatively effortless production. The fact that it’s one of the most demanding ongoing anime, if not outright the trickiest, was a deliberate decision. The show carefully depicts daily life actions, minute gestures and changes in expressions, eloquent postures, individual demeanor, all these little things that give flavor to mundanity and create the illusion of life. While none of those are much trouble individually, it all piles up and ends up amounting to more work that a standard TV series with mind-boggling highlights; this approach tends to require more cuts with actual movement, plus it demands that the directors carefully guide the animators to make sure all actions feel appropriate. And at the end of the day, that’s much more troublesome than a handful of spectacular moments that can be handed to a couple of talented animators to freely do their thing.
This is where the issue stops being about this show in particular, and more about the limitations of TV anime. I’ve talked about this before, but “character acting” is a purposefully vague way to refer to a certain type of sequences. When it comes to modern Japanese animation, you can broadly separate between two kinds of it, which for a lack of a better term I’ll call performance and life. The former is by far the most common in TV anime, since it’s easier to deliver in small doses. Attractive movement is the main draw there, even moreso than what the characters are actually doing. As a general rule, it tends to exaggerate the emotions for outbursts and be more of a platform for the animator to express themselves rather than the character. As effective as those can be, to some degree they end up being interchangeable sequences, where you could slap another character’s face and it would change nothing. On the other hand we have cases like Just Because!, which are more akin to life; characters are treated as people and thus every one of their actions is meant to be coherent with their self and their current situation. This kind of acting is usually enforced by the directors to begin with, who already delineate the behavior in the storyboards very precisely; it’s not a coincidence that the second episode of the Just Because! already had the early record number of 5 storyboarders, and that Kobayashi himself is stuck continuously correcting other people’s boards – when you’re placing so much emphasis on the minute actions, the animators have to be provided much more concrete guidelines that are cohesive with the show as a whole. It isn’t a binary situation of course, and ideally we’d have a bit of both, but attempts to capture life are very rare in this space. Not only does it require a more coordinated and careful effort, but it also isn’t as compatible with anime’s production model geared towards the individual expression of key animators.
To be quite honest, and at risk of oversimplifying the issue a little bit, there are essentially just two studios that can be trusted to consistently achieve that acted life in TV anime – which doesn’t necessarily make them the best, but definitely the most apt in this regard. One of them is Kyoto Animation, which is entirely segregated from the rest of the industry and has dogmatically embraced that unique philosophy as their core. The other one would be certain parts of Production I.G, as they have kept the principles present in their unmatched theatrical history for some TV projects. And this ties back to Just Because!, since its director Kobayashi learned the ropes at I.G, the studio he first joined as a Production Assistant (制作進行, Seisaku Shinkou): Effectively the lowest ranking 'producer' role, and yet an essential cog in the system. They check and carry around the materials, and contact the dozens upon dozens of artists required to get an episode finished. Usually handling multiple episodes of the shows they're involved with. More. Despite having no experience as an animator, that approach to acting is what he absorbed and what he seems to want to achieve as a director now. Even his mentor Tsutomu Mizushima is a strong proponent of lively character animation (although much closer to the performance faction), to the point that he also crashed ambitious projects at small studios. It’s not a surprise that without the capable crew prepared for many years to produce this very particular kind of anime, Kobayashi is now struggling immensely.
Is it worth it then? Should other studios try to capture that feeling of life, even though it’s likely to backfire? As far as I’m concerned, the first episodes of Just Because are a delight, despite their rough form – and sometimes because of that. I would be very happy if this approach was more feasible in TV anime, if more companies trained their newcomers to portray people and not just amusing puppets. All things considered though, I can’t in good faith advocate for more projects like this, knowing the fate that would likely await them.
Anime needs more people like Atsushi Kobayashi, who will treat his casts like groups of people and thoroughly depict their lives. Anime needs more companies like Pine Jam, trusting young artists and unashamedly embracing motion over a strict sense of polish. But more than anything else, anime needs an environment where creators like that can produce what they want without worrying about everything crashing more often than not. Whether Just Because! manages to wrap up its production in time for its broadcast or not – and that I’m even considering the possibility should tell you how screwed they are – the fundamental problem will remain.
EDIT: A 100% credible industry member who knows the situation has privately placed the blame on the director Kobayashi, so keep their opinion in mind.
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