Good evening, good afternoon and good morning ladies and gentlemen! We find ourselves at the end of another year, recalling the good and the bad times, celebrating the lack of a hangover despite a wild night out, but also struck with the fear of hanging over a toilet bowl on New Year’s Day to keep the scales balanced. Most importantly, though, it’s the time of the year where we round up the sakubuta to present the ever-growing 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. Bowl and see which shows left the biggest visual impressions on us, as per the tradition began by grandpa Kraker2k. This year we’ve decided to spice things up with some small category changes, so let’s take a look at what we got everyone to vote for:
— Best Show
— Best Episode
— Best Movie
— Best OP/ED
— Best Composite
— Best Character Animation
— Best Animation Designs
— Animator Discovery
For those participating for the first time, composite, character animation, and animation designs are our new categories this time around. All three of them are important aspects that tend to get overlooked more often than not, so this time we made a conscious effort to ensure they receive as much of a spotlight as the rest. Last year we tried to enforce a word limit to keep things somewhat short, a decision that quickly made itself apparent as a foolish one since no one was willing to stay within it, so this time we allowed free reign to go wild. Enough from me, though! We’ve invited 315Pro’s S.E.M to kick things off, so sit back and enjoy their unique performance before I pass you on to guest host Astolfo and try to prevent the cursed Gudako from turning its attention to us once it inevitably consumes our boy Gran.
Show — Little Witch Academia
When a creative short film is adapted to TV, there’s doubtlessly going to be compromises. In this case, Studio Pablo was unavailable to handle the new backgrounds, Yoh Yoshinari was too busy as director to micro-manage each episode and of course, there was a much tighter schedule with 25 consecutive episodes. But Little Witch Academia TV both shows respect to the elements that we loved about the short films and gives us more reasons to love this tale. By offering favourite Trigger creatives the opportunity to share in Yoh Yoshinari’s world and ideas, it makes each episode not only narratively distinctive, but visually distinctive as well with many different types of animation coming into prominence. Sadly, the ideal way to watch it was never by binging through it on Netflix, and instead is a much more satisfying watch weekly.
Episode — Pokemon: Sun and Moon #43
It almost feels like a betrayal of Pokemon: Sun and Moon’s new animation philosophies to say that its best episode was one filled with battles. Many of Pokemon’s best moments this year has been when it’s broken the barriers set by its previous iterations by using exaggerated character expressions and animation, allowing Ash and friends to squash and stretch in ways that would have been taboo in the past.
But although the amount of battles have decreased in favour of new ideas and character building episodes, the fights themselves have gotten all the more intense. Episode 43 features two of them; one between Kiawe and Brock, with the best moments key animated by Aito Ohashi, and another between Ash and Misty, with exceptional scenes by Isao Namba. Each of them treats their battle in a distinctive way, with Ohashi emphasising dramatic timing to make Mega Steelix feel all the more fearsome whilst Namba uses a moving camera with background animation to give off a similar impression. By bringing the two best Pokemon: Sun and Moon animators (whose names aren’t Masaaki Iwane) onto a single episode and having them create extended cuts, it stands out as one of the most impressive episodes of the year.
Movie — Fate/Stay Night: Heaven’s Feel I. presage flower
It’s been a pleasure to see Ufotable at their prime. Watching the illustrious studio become subject to the increasing pressure of production deadlines has been bittersweet over the past few years. But Fate/Stay Night: Heaven’s Feel, having been in production for years, is a perfected sequence of examples of how digital technologies can blend with the art of hand-drawn animation to create scenes with a new level of scale entirely in the action scenes. Additionally, the character animation, whilst clearly not the highlight, was enough to make characters like Shirou immediately more likeable on screen. It’s the first instance in a very long time of a Ufotable production that feels complete.
OP/ED — Land of the Lustrous OP
Whilst the rest of Land of the Lustrous is produced at Studio Orange, its opening was created as a separate production at Kayak. Directed and storyboarded by Kiyoyuki Amano, it’s a production created by a team with no real experience with creating anime. Rather, their experience lies within VFX and programming. It’s an excellent example of using anime to bring creators out of their comfort zones and bringing new technical talents to anime audiences.
Composite — TheAnimeGuild Opening Sequence
As a huge fan of Ufotable’s Digital Team department chief, Yuichi Terao, I can’t help but include his short opening for Fuji TV’s new timeslot. It’s only 20 seconds long, but offers a digitally fluent way of creating anime with overwhelming effects and meticulously designed CG airships. It takes at least twenty rewatches to actually start to understand the underlying narrative to this short, but conveniently enough, it takes an equal amount of time to take in all of the visual elements and ideas being used on screen.
Character Animation — The Night is Short, Walk on Girl
Between Masaaki Yuasa’s two films released in 2017, The Night is Short, Walk on Girl feels like a production that better compliments his influence. There is a small number of creators who could have created a great Lu Over the Wall film, but there is only one who could have made The Night is Short, Walk on Girl. Science Saru’s love for Adobe Flash compliments the flat colours and surreal shapes, making the bizarre forms of character movement and expression more interesting to watch. So much so, that when realistic motion is shown, it represents a new level of care and devotion from both the character and animator.
Animation Designs — Kazuchika Kise & Kou Yoshinari (Made in Abyss)
It’s not always the case that the more simple character designs end up being my favourite, but the forms of motion that are endorsed within these designs often ends up being the most fun. Shows like Girls Last Tour and Pokemon: Sun and Moon similarly took advantage of fun round blobs. But the forms of motion used with Kazuchika Kise’s Made in Abyss designs take things to a terrifying extreme. When the same forms of squash and stretch used on our cute adventurers is used to animate the grotesque movement of an eldritch horror, it becomes all the more disturbing.
Likewise, Kou Yoshinari’s designs represent a more direct horror in the form of fearsome beasts attempting to rip our adventurers apart. Some complained early on that Yoshinari’s animation didn’t blend into the world and stood out too much, and whilst there are parts that appear a little off putting, the fact that these creatures move in entirely unique ways makes them more of a threat and impossible to truly understand. It’s easy to accept that the cast of Made in Abyss, with all their blobby tendencies would be absolutely terrified by something that moves in such a detailed and eerie way.
Animator Discovery — Kai Shibata [柴田海]
Kai Shibata has been around since 2015, but it’s only been in 2017 that I became aware of his Twitter account (and subsequently, his body of work). Although he’s done some thrilling work in action series like Fate/Apocrypha and KonoSuba S2, it’s his character actions and reactions that stand out the most to me, particularly in regards to his cuts within Interviews with Monster Girls. He’s only been brought on to create short standout shots so far, but I’m excited to see what he can do with lengthier actions.
Futon – [Twitter]
Show — Made in Abyss
Every aspect of Made in Abyss was something to remember it for. An interesting story, Kevin Penkin’s soundtrack being one of the best this year and, of course, its visual aspects being well thought out and really creative — probably the most important aspect for this list. It doesn’t take long time to realize how significant this title was supposed to be for studio Kinema Citrus and how much work and love they put into it. From amazing backgrounds to well known names as designers — Kazuchika Kise’s characters and Kou Yoshinari’s monsters. Masayuki Kojima not only directed the show but even storyboarded a whopping nine out of thirteen episodes full of charm, unsettling mystery and bizarre creatures with such an otherwordly animation by the aforementioned older Yoshinari brother.
Episode — Fate/Apocrypha #22
There has been a lot of outstanding episodes this year – the action packed Pokemon Sun & Moon #43, Saekano S2 #10’s display of emotional character acting, Ryouma Ebata’s almost solo animated Princess Principal #05, and even a more modest projects like 18if had two great ones. I would probably have had to spend a lot of time to choose between all of them, if I’m being honest. That is until last month, when Apocrypha #22 came out and made things easy on most of us 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. nerds. An episode full of the best young talents in the industry that had, as Hakuyu Go confirmed, only 6 people animated on paper, with the rest of them working digital. Yet as amazing as it was despite the all-stars contributions, it still wasn’t enough to convince a lot of anime watchers of its greatness. Digital animation stars, self-trained in action, who lack a lot of polish and instead of neat lines and body shapes concentrate on making constantly moving spectacles are not for everyone, no matter what! But those who aren’t fixated on an on-model animation or don’t mind loss of complexity for the sake of raw talent bursting through the screen: go watch Hakuyu Go’s and Nakaya Onsen’s team and their masterpiece if you haven’t yet.
Movie — Kizumonogatari III Reiketsu-hen
I have to confess: I was really disappointed by the first Kizumonogatari movie. Those hundreds of years in development made me expect a Tatsuya Oishi masterpiece. It was great, sure, but it just didn’t reach the level I wanted it to. One year later I finally got to watch the next two movies and the third part finally got to blow my mind. The whole thing, rightfully so as an Oishi anime, felt like a huge stylistic experiment, and when joined by an animator that does the same thing in the field of animation — Kou Yoshinari — the result was anything but an ordinary movie. The only sad thought that remains in my head after Kizumonogatari is that we likely won’t get another Shaft anime graced by so many talented animators anytime soon.
OP/ED — Atom the Beginning
If a list of openings that gave people false hope for the production quality of it’s anime exists out there somewhere, Atom would be at the top. It’s futile to look for any of the star names that Bahi JD brought together for the opening in the show iteself, but hey, let’s forget about it for the sake of the coolest and best animated opening of this year. The term ‘Webgen (web系): Popular term to refer to the mostly young digital animators that have been joining the professional anime industry as of late; their most notable artists started off gaining attention through gifs and fanmade animations online, hence web generation. It encompasses various waves of artists at this point so it's hardly one generation anymore, but the term has stuck.‘ is slowly losing its concrete meaning as the first generation of digital animators who started it all are rarely even present in modern works. And yet, Bahi managed to not only gather an amazing bunch of digital animators for his short project (Hakuyu Go, Itsuki “miso” Tsuchigami), but even got those real web generation stars like Shingo Yamashita, Shun Enokido and Tatsurou Kawano. Even legendary animator Mitsuo Iso was present to shine over them! When Bahi JD inevitably directs anime in the future, I hope to see all of them as regulars.
Composite — Gyakusatsu Kikan: Genocidal Organ
As a fan of Yuuichirou Hayashi, I was prepared to write about Kakegurui (which had amazing compositing for a MAPPA series) up until couple of weeks ago when I finally got to watch Gyakusatsu Kikan. The first movie from Project Itoh that, thanks to Manglobe’s financial ruin, got finished as the last one of the three wasn’t really a good film per se yet left the biggest impression in this regard. The first tell of good compositing is when objects that would be still in a regular work (since they aren’t animated really) are made to move or rather cruise through the screen faking motion: clouds, fog above the ground, dust seen in rays of light or just plain city lights. Add to that a heavy futuristic feel with a lots of holographic screens, augmentations to people’s sight and even first person shots and you have things impossible for the animators to take care of that is left for the stars of this field – people doing Photography (撮影, Satsuei): The marriage of elements produced by different departments into a finished picture, involving filtering to make it more harmonious. A name inherited from the past, when cameras were actually used during this process. work. They had unusual work beyond that as well: making cuts animated while the movie was in transition between late Manglobe and new Geno Studio usable. And believe me that was a tough job even on paper, since those were uncorrected, off-model, badly in-betweened and ugly in general. Fortunately with a lot of on-screen effects and relying on desaturation of shadows they became watchable and hidden enough from our view.
Character Animation — Eromanga-sensei (honorary mention for Saekano S2 #10)
In spite of itself, Eromanga-sensei was quite the amazing production focused mostly on expressing characters through their demeanor. Keisuke Kobayashi’s name (the series’ main animator, credited as ‘Sagiri Animator’) stood out even before we got to see any of the episodes, but the hype was well rewarded. Both the quality and quantity of his work left me on my knees, and even if was mostly for nefarious purposes, the realistic character acting was a thing to behold. He wasn’t the only standout performer, though. Nakaya Onsen, whose cooking scene became arguably one of the most famous scenes in the show, China (ちな), Masayuki Nonaka, Shuu Sugita and many more came to show us just how good they are at animating character movement. You know you’ve hit a once in a couple of years goldmine when even your backgrounds are key animated and full of life!
Animation Designs — Yoshihiko Umakoshi (My Hero Academia S2)
A quick and easy one. With the quality of designs and work that Yoshihiko Umakoshi always puts out you cannot expect anything less than a masterpiece in terms of the designs and their corrections. And when helped by the likes of Yuuki Hayashi and studio BONES’ great animation directors (Odashima Hitomi made the biggest impression on me), the outcome can only be great.
Animator Discovery — Noriyuki Imaoka (今岡律之)
While the biggest and promising surprise this year was probably Nakaya Onsen, the most important discovery on a personal level would be Noriyuki Imaoka. As a fan of Yuusuke “fugo” Matsuo and the crew of cool animators that look up to him (Kazuaki Shimada, Furuhashi Satoshi and ちな to name few) I couldn’t overlook the next one to join them. Noriyuki is not a new animator by any means (he even handled the character designs for last year’s short anime Kiitaro Shounen no Enikki), but this year saw him do a lot of work for a relatively new studio, yet one full of talented staff: Pine Jam. This was thanks to his connections with the above mentioned Shimada, and here he went on to make connections with Ryohei Takeshita, even taking part in both Eromanga-sensei and Just Because!‘s opening. And it is also this year that he started showing all the signs of heavy Fugo inspiration that ちな did last year as well: rough but expressive character animation with a lot of focus on the shape of hands, fabrics and their movement. Here’s to hoping we see a lot more of him on the next ‘Fugo and friends’ project, Yama no Susume S3.
Show — Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju Season 2
In a year of exceptionally good anime, itʼs hard to pick just one, but I consider it to be a feat that the second season of Rakugo raised the already incredibly high bar of the first season. It managed to articulate some of the richest character drama Iʼve seen in an anime in a while, paired with Shinichi Omataʼs subtle but powerful direction, and I think it can be easily said this show is a rare gem. Stories are like the wind; they come and go, but there is something that lasts with me in Rakugo, and I hope that we see something of its caliber again soon.
Episode — Made in Abyss #13
While being an explosive show production-wise, I actually found that Made in Abyss was far more interesting to dissect than watch; its slow progress culminated in some extremely rich twists and world-building, but it was only 3/4ths into the season where I felt like we were really starting to uncover the showʼs true strengths. I was not prepared in the slightest however for how emotionally packed the finale would be. Its production finesse was paired with stunning character development, heart wrenching but thematically fitting backstories, and a beautiful send off into whatʼs likely to be a fantastic second season – very few shows this year have come close to creating a grand finale, but Made in Abyss did it with style and respect.
Movie — A Silent Voice, The Night Is Short Walk on Girl
Ok, I tried, but I couldnʼt really pick one. Both A Silent Voice and Night is Short are fantastic for very different reasons, and what I believe are strong examples to prove how anime can be so versatile as a canvas. Naoko Yamada only continues to grow stronger as a director with her eye for detail, body expression, and balance between minimalistic composition and intense atmosphere. In a movie where so much is said without saying, she does an excellent job of capturing the searing emotions of loneliness, self loathing, and anxiety through the flawed perspective of Shoya Ishida. Genuinely adapting the manga was no easy task, but I think she did a wonderful job.
Meanwhile, Night is Long is pure, unadulterated Yuasa and Science Saru joy, just like their other release this year, Lu over the Wall. Whereas the latter is aimed at a general audience, Night is Long is clearly for fans of the TV series Tatami Galaxy. It manages to capture all of the strengths and quirkiness of its side story and weaves them into a beautiful film about living your life to the fullest and the magic behind multiple perspectives. Science Saru pushes the boundaries of traditional animation with their approach to Flash and relatively healthy production schedules. While I do feel a bit sad knowing that some fantastic animatorsʼ styles are lost along the way (Shinya Ohira!), itʼs a small sacrifice Iʼm willing to accept when a movie like this create raw and surrealist fantasies that are hard to come by these days.
If thereʼs one flaw to be had this year animation-wise, itʼs that we werenʼt blessed with as many Ishihama OP/EDs as I would have liked. But luckily, there is still some great stuff out there! Rakugoʼs second OP is clear evidence that you donʼt need to have flashy animation or an abundance of cuts to create a powerful introduction (take notes, Magusʼ Bride); in cases like this, a strong 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 featuring neat transitions can be enough to leave an impression. It’s a very low-key sequence, but impactful all the same as it bridges between the past season and the sequel with some strong metaphors and a beautiful yet tragic song by Megumi Hayashibara.
ACCAʼs opening and ending are both strong for similar reasons, but the ending clearly takes the cake. Yuuki Airaʼs melodious voice carries us through this graceful Ohira-like ballet scene, which is entirely solo animated by Izumi Murakami. The character work and fluidity to the dancing are both just breathtaking here, captured with beautiful delicacy. Itʼs been impressive watching Murakami grow from doing small cuts in Mob Psycho and Death Parade to animating an entire ED, and Iʼm looking forward to seeing more of their work in the future.
Honorable mention by the way to Kubo and the Two Strings, which has an ending credits performed by the wonderful Regina Spektor, who covers ‘While My Guitar Gently Weepsʼ. Iʼm not usually one to be blown away by the credits of a movie so easily (the last one that comes to mind is Pixarʼs Wall-E) but if there is one credits scene you should watch this year, itʼs this one.
Composite — Land of the Lustrous
This is a bit of a tough one, since my default answer would be Yamadaʼs A Silent Voice, but since Iʼve already discussed that one, Iʼm going to go ahead and highlight Land of the Lustrous. Iʼve rarely felt the impact of composite work so much, but it really does make the difference in this show. The digital work is integral to some of the iconic shots in the series, whether it comes to utilizing the beautiful yet empty sky, or striking dramatic moments like Antarcticiteʼs shattering. Land of the Lustrous is already a fascinating piece of work for how it cohesively ties together 2D and 3DCG processes, and the delicate layer of postprocessing shows that thereʼs a bright future for the integration of different animation techniques.
Character Animation — Konosuba Season 2, Just Because!
The possibility of transitioning from a project commanded by Koichi Kikuta, responsible for the elastic and goofy animation prominent in the original, to someone like Yasuyuki Ebara more known for his action expertise, had me both curious and slightly anxious. In the end Kikuta was still the leading voice, and even under different hands Konosuba still some wildly fun character animation that adds to the overall charm of the show. Unfortunately it still suffered production constraints, but thereʼs just something about googly eyed, cartoon-like stylized animation that is simply fun to watch. Similarly, Just Because! also suffers from a hell of a schedule thatʼs restrained a lot of its earlier character animation charm, but when it hits the spot, itʼs incredibly good stuff that focuses on those small detailed moments that last.
Animation Designs — Kouji Kumeta, Kousuke Kawazura (Eccentric Family S2)
This isnʼt necessarily fair since it’s something it inherited from the original series, but I had to give this show credit anyways: its stylized designs are once again my favorite. From the seductive Bentou to the old and cranky Akadama-sensei, Kouji Kumeta captures the charm that Morimi imbued each character with through their absurd and yet memorable designs, which in the end transitioned well to animation. They are a balance between distinctive and simplistic; something I feel thatʼs hard to achieve considering how character designs are often a make it or break it deal for a smoother production schedule.
Animator Discovery — Toshiro Fujii [藤井俊郎]
In a slow burn summer season, one episode stood out amongst all the rest: 18if #3. While the show was an inconsistent spread of highs and lows, the entirety of the third episode was just stunningly directed. It was through these 23 minutes that I discovered Toshiro Fujii. Not only did he direct the episode; he was also in charge of the script, storyboarding and chief Animation Direction (作画監督, sakuga kantoku): The artists supervising the quality and consistency of the animation itself. They might correct cuts that deviate from the designs too much if they see it fit, but their job is mostly to ensure the motion is up to par while not looking too rough. Plenty of specialized Animation Direction roles exist – mecha, effects, creatures, all focused in one particular recurring element.. He was not only able to turn a rather straightforward romance story into an incredibly meditative episode, but he also used a variety of techniques that I donʼt see often these days, resulting in one of the most powerful vignettes of the year. While originally an animator at Studio Pierrot for Naruto, heʼs clearly got incredible talent for more than just that, and I really hope he gets more directorial work soon.
Episode — Fate/Apocrypha #22
There’s not much left to say about this outrageous showcase of the industry’s most incredible young animators led by visionary Hakuyu Go. The episode aired quite recently and as a proof of its exceptionality became a topic of discussion even among people who generally don’t talk about animation. Ryan’s post highlights many individual animators involved in its inception in-depth so I’ll refrain from going there as anything I would write would fall short of it. The episode spawned some controversial reactions (as it usually is with things that break the norm), but for me it was simply the most impressive technical accomplishment I watched in anime this year. Thank you, Haku-san!
Movie — Blade Runner: Black Out 2022
Not exactly a movie, but by all means a theatrical level production. Just a look on the staff list makes it seem like a 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. fan’s wet dream and unsurprisingly, that it was. Despite Shukou Murase’s detailed designs and solid supervision, the short was a great venue for animators to showcase their own strengths and idiosyncrasies. Legends like Shinji Hashimoto, Shinya Ohira, Mitsuo Iso and Hiroyuki Okiura all animated without restrains and the results were unforgettable. Shout out to Bahi JD for possibly delivering the best piece of action animation he has ever done as well. And now a message to producers: just give Shinichiro Watanabe no constraints for his next project so he can afford to hire these animators again. I’m sure he would let them run wild once more.
I’m sure most of you currently associate director Takahiko Kyougoku with last season’s outstanding 3DCG TV anime Land of the Lustrous. Now that the show’s popularity is probably at its all-time height I’d like you to check out the opening sequence he directed for Iron-Blooded Orphans. The depiction of a ground-based battlefield of huge robots sucked me in as if I was there sitting in a cockpit, and I much as I adore space battles and missile circuses, the sheer intensity of this opening left a lasting impression on me.
Rie Matsumoto’s ending to Blood Blockade Battlefront & Beyond is a tough one to describe but if I were to pick a term it would be “organized chaos“. It was a blast to watch this sequence each week and gradually understand the references in it. Shame you probably won’t be able to appreciate its genius if you haven’t watched the show *cough*watchit*cough*.
Composite — Boruto – Naruto Next Generations
It’s almost baffling how different Boruto looks compared to the outdated visual style of its older brother, or should I say father. Pierrot D.A.R.’s work on the compositing particularly caught my eye when Chengxi Huang’s work on episode 14 aired and based on what I’ve seen, this high quality seems to be the show’s standard. It’s not as intrusive as Yuichi Terao or Kentaro Waki’s flashy style and that’s how I prefer it!
Character Animation — Welcome to the Ballroom
Strong team of animators assembled at Production I.G. handled the challenge of animating ballroom dancing – despite some constraints – well enough and delivered excellent acting animation, mainly during emotionally tense moments. Great job by chief animation directors Takahiro Chiba and Masayuki Honda on keeping the difficult designs consistently on-model.
Animation Designs — Yoshihiko Umakoshi (My Hero Academia)
Animator Discovery — Shu Sugita [杉田柊]
Make sure to click page 2!