Preparing Ufotable’s Future: Today’s Menu For The Emiya Family

Preparing Ufotable’s Future: Today’s Menu For The Emiya Family

Today’s Menu For The Emiya Family might be the most inconspicuous entry in the massive Fate franchise, but don’t let its appearance fool you: this cooking spin-off isn’t only a charming series that can be enjoyed by all, it’s also in some regards ufotable’s most brilliant achievement to date, and quite the big opportunity when it comes to their up-and-coming creators. Let’s take a look at their achievements and at the important context!

Leading up to the now traditional Fate/Grand Order New Years event, the broadcast of a short gag compilation produced by ufotable was confirmed alongside yet another Lay-duce TV special. What they managed to sneak in undetected however was an adaptation of TAa’s spinoff Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family, which aired an episode by surprise during that slot and was then revealed to be a monthly series. Now that we’re up to 5 episodes and considering how it represents something quite interesting for ufotable as a whole, a look at the series so far and what it means for the studio is entirely warranted.

On paper, its announcement could be interpreted as an unsurprising move; the most renowned studio currently handling Type-Moon properties was given yet another title of theirs, with staff that seemed fairly familiar. Takahiro Miura would direct it after all – a mainstay at ufotable, having progressed from a regular animator in their early days to one of their main directors after making the jump on Manabi Straight and later Kara no Kyoukai. He also happens to be a key figure in their Fate adaptations, as he directed Unlimited Blade Works and is currently in charge of Heavens Feel’s action. His very well-defined priorities as a director make him inherently unsurprising to boot: a focus on space that can be traced back to his animation output, and a knack for set pieces that sacrifice consistent scale and positional awareness in favor of grand spectacle with exciting flow. Is this more of the same then? As you may have guessed if you’ve looked at the premise at all, absolutely not.

Before we get to the series itself though, it’s worth going over the rest of the main staff, since minor ufotable projects tend to gather interesting crews. Such is the case of photography director Sae Yoshikawa, who lives in the shadow of the studio’s digital leader Yuichi Terao but snags all opportunities available when he’s too busy, offering a much more restrained touch with a sense of warmth that perfectly fits a show like this. Designer Touko Uchimura is also shaping up to be someone to look out for; she joined the studio as they were expanding, and has gradually climbed the ladder, becoming the first of Katsugeki: Touken Ranbu’s design newcomers – the project entrusted young animators to conceptualize individual main characters on their own – to debut with a full project. Her reinterpretation of Emiya’s aesthetic doesn’t stray far from the source, maintaining its simple round forms, but there’s no complaints to be had with something this cute.

But of course, if there’s one last name we should preemptively tackle it’s co-series director Tetsuhito Sato, who came out of nowhere to have even more of a hand in the project than Miura. He barely had any experience directing bits and pieces before, let alone a full project, to the point that the first two episodes of Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family are actually his proper debut as storyboarder. His work had been instead leaning much more towards animation duties, so fans had come to know him as a proficient supervisor, a bit of an effects expert, and someone with a damn cool signature, which made this whole prospect all the more intriguing. Sato actually belongs to the ufotable Tokushima crew, a sub-studio I’m rather fond of not just because of their instructive intent but also because their lead director Takuya Nonaka is capable of excellent introspective, quiet work, both in a light-hearted sense and in genuine horror situations. By all means the kind of senior you love to have around!

Sato’s promotion is then interesting in and of itself, but even more so when you consider the circumstances of the studio as a whole, as ufotable lost their de-facto creative leader with the departure of the inimitable Takayuki Hirao. Since there’s no recapturing the magic he conjured on titles like Futakoi Alternative, Manabi Straight, Majocco, and Kara no Kyoukai’s fifth film, giving a chance to new voices is very important at the moment, especially when dealing with types of projects that differ from the brand the studio has built in recent times. There’s no blaming fans who believe ufotable is all about flashy game adaptations now because that’s been their route to success for years, but let’s not forget that they used to be one of the most experimental groups of creators, led by a president with such desire to try out new things that he’s been credited for pretty much every role involved in making anime. As much as the loss of their most brilliant director hurts, an environment like theirs is perfectly capable of raising new generations of interesting creators.

With most of the context out of the way, we can actually start addressing the series itself. The first couple of episodes already paint a very clear picture of the vision of Sato & co, what they excel at as well as their relative shortcomings. Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family is a very cozy, relaxing show, but if I were to sum up what sets it apart from its peers in one word it would be precision. The episodes are constructed around preparing and eating a dish, and those actions in particular are depicted with an unmatched level of care. Reaching the level of accuracy required for the series to serve as a genuine cooking tutorial while at the same time retaining some of the fun inherent to animation is a very tricky business, which makes their work genuinely one of ufotable’s greatest achievements; realistic animation is used alongside brisker cuts, reminiscent of moments like the work of Nakaya Onsen (who incidentally was very impressed by Emiya), maintaining that level of precision as its one constant. It’s tactile and immensely satisfying, save for the fact that it will make you hungry no matter what.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that despite the quietly sensational animation, the scenes that receive this exceptional treatment are rather impersonal actions, so in the end it’s still far from impressive from an acting standpoint. There’s some small inspired moments, but otherwise the sequences where gestures and body language should bring the characters to life are either lacking or kinda sluggish – and that’s why projects like this are so important! The staff’s technical excellence could never be put into question at this point, but they lack the experience to conceptualize believable life-like demeanors, and that’s only achieved through observation and by depicting mundane actions over and over. At a time of change for ufotable, more projects with daily life as the centerpiece could allow rising figures like Sato to begin infusing the studio’s work with a kind of personal character they lacked before. It’s quite the opportunity!

Rather than staying a personal quirk, Sato’s meticulousness as director shaped the whole production, extending his approach to the episodes he wasn’t directly in charge of as well. Because of that, we see cooking animation directors on episodes 4 & 5… though the most amusing example would be in the first episode, which entrusted Takayuki Motegi with the role of shopping district animation direction; Motegi, known for his appealing simple forms, did a nice job ensuring that the neighborhood felt realistically inhabited, filled with people casually doing their thing without being too prohibitive from an animation standpoint. All the successes by the animation team are even more impressive when you consider that the studio’s stars are pretty much entirely missing from this project, which is instead carried by younger Tokushima animators with some assistance by modest members of the studio’s main workforce and freelancers. Again, productions like this represent quite the chance for up and coming artists to stand out.

Though later episode directors have also managed to leave a bit of a personal imprint in their work, the most consistently breathtaking element I’ve yet to talk about is the equally careful depiction of Emiya’s world; it feels unfair to praise the art direction by itself, since the result is as impressive as it is because of how well it all comes together. As colorful as they are, the backgrounds envisioned by Kazuo Ebisawa are as photorealistic as ufotable has gotten us accustomed to – and there’s nothing wrong with having a clear studio identity in that regard, as much as I praise the new artistic sensibilities a project like this open up to. That could have clashed with the stylized designs however, so the digital crew made sure to apply some subtle textures over the character art that bring them closer to the grainy scenery since the very first shot. When people think about ufotable’s postprocessing thy imagine the flashy lightning, blue tint, and the particle effects Terao loves so much, but they’re also capable of bringing harmony to a low-key charming series like this.

All things considered then, is Emiya paving the way for a new ufotable? Yes and no. It would be unreasonable to expect them to drop the avenue that allowed them to expand so much and that ensured financial stability for all the staff, many of whom are quite fond of the works that established their modern brand. At the same time, side projects like this are now even more important than delightful one-offs like Minori Scramble and Naoko-san were at the time, since the studio is trying to make up for having lost their creative leader. Premises are essentially irrelevant, but a lineup that allows their rising figures to handle diverse registers can only have positive effects on their future.

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4 years ago

Is Yuka Shibata the “creative leader.” that Ufotable have lost?
The article does not mention any name.

J.P. Turcotte
4 years ago
Reply to  kViN

Is he at WIT now?

Zachary Brown
Zachary Brown
4 years ago

I love the textured aesthetic! I can’t recall any other show besides Gankutsuou that attempted to use a non-paint fill aesthetic for its characters. Imagine if we could see animated versions of characters by Hidari or Hiromu Arakawa without losing their tactile feel. That said, if the “textured” aesthetic hasn’t really been attempted outside of a handful of cases, then perhaps there is a reason why it hasn’t caught on? Is it because of how difficult it would be to get the textures to “flow” with the character animation, rather than feeling the characters are cut outs moving over a… Read more »