The latest episode of Record of Grancrest War reunited some of the most unique artists involved in this production, so now it seems like the perfect time to recap how this misleadingly strong series has fared so far, the idiosyncratic team behind it all, and exactly who was responsible for all the eye-catching work this week.
Key Animation: Yui Ushio, Miyuki Inoue, Miyuki Honda, Kazutaka Ema, Masato Hagiwara, Minako Yokoyama, Junko Matsushita, Hisao Muramatsu, Chiho Fujiwara, Hikaru Takanashi, Kazuya Nakanishi, Keiji Hanzawa, Chen Yu Fen, Yukihiro Kobayashi, Saori Yonezawa, Haruki Nakagawa,
Hirotaka Tokuda, Takuro Naka, Hajime Nakagawa, Toshihito Kato, Junichi Saito, Kazunori Ozawa
─ Since this is our first post on the series I feel like it deserves a bit of an introduction and a general production recap, as Record of Grancrest War is a show that many people have understandably passed on. It’s no secret that its series director Mamoru Hatakeyama is quite the interesting creator; his first major step in the anime industry was when he joined studio SHAFT under the name Shinichi Omata, after acting as the animation producer on many ero anime OVAs. He developed his own voice over there, branching off the studio brand with a style that kept the theatricality but with a strong tendency to get close to the characters – a combination that fit his crowning achievement Rakugo like a glove, as it’s built around interpersonal relationships and performances with a focus on gesture. After leading the modern revolution of studio DEEN, we find the now prestigious Hatakeyama directing… a light novel adaptation with a frankly mediocre beginning, with a couple of moments where his beautiful quirks and the quality of the team they assembled get to shine, but that fails to have much of an immediate hook.
─ Fortunately, that’s all very misleading – even on a narrative level, since the seemingly trite premise of a dashing young man saving the heroine from going to work under a lascivious lord was a massive lie meant to fool both characters and audience. Rather than a standard fantasy light novel, the series begins unfolding like a solid JRPG, with surprisingly compelling relationships and a grand conflict that wouldn’t make it to a shortlist of anime’s greatest political plots but that stays entertaining on its own right. The production also finds its footing after a rocky start, always a bit short on the polish but constantly churning out inspired storyboards and eye-catching animation highlights. Perhaps what stands out the most is Hatakeyama’s omnipresence beyond the episodes he storyboarded, which proves that he’s either offering many corrections to other people’s work or that he’s left very precise instructions. That makes itself most obvious with the plentiful kagenashi moments that he’s so fond of; recently we saw renowned director Mamoru Hosoda explain that he uses that approach in his films to portray children’s true emotions without visual intricacies getting in the way, and Hatakeyama seems to share similar beliefs. He constantly uses this bare presentation, often in conjunction with his very deliberate close-ups, to isolate feelings in an impactful way. If this sounds like an interesting way to tackle what feels like a fantasy game with no UI, don’t hesitate to give it a shot, even if the first couple of episodes drove you away.
─ Recapping all of the production’s highlights up to this point would take quite a while, since we’re three quarters in and there’s been plenty of special moments; distinct fighting styles by the hand of animators who were suited for those particular approaches have kept battlefields exciting, Hatakeyama’s framework allowed for more intimate moments, and sometimes there’s a perfect mix of both like in episode 11’s touching final confrontation on the bridge, made all by more special by Hironori Tanaka’s work. Since Kenshiro Yamada is acting as the project’s animation producer, it’s no big surprise that we’ve also seen many of the sakuga stars from the first season of The Seven Deadly Sins and especially The Asterisk War’s team reunited. Spark master Takashi Torii showed off as main animator in the first half of the series, while the likes of Masayuki Nonaka and even the photorealistic yet surreal Hokuto Sakiyama returned for less extensive but memorable contributions. When it comes to (so far) one-off appearances though, no one can compare to the young star Nakaya Onsen, who offered the most spectacular contribution on episode 14. His sequence is quite similar to his work on the iconic Fate/Apocrypha #22, sporting breathtaking effects, similar volumetric character art (though adapting to Hatakeyama’s flat aesthetic) and increasing the scale of the battle tenfold for a truly impressive scene. It stands out like a sore thumb, but in the best of ways.
─ When it comes to the other directors in the team, a few figures stand out. There’s of course Shigeyasu Yamauchi and Kenji Nakamura disciple Nobukage Kimura, who has become one of Hatakeyama’s greatest allies; he boosts the theatricality with a more ornate style that’s still easily readable, constantly showcasing a prowess that makes you wish he got to head his own project at some point. Promising young director Ryuhei Aoyagi has also caught attention with his ambitious action storyboards, but above all else we have to highlight action expert Hirotaka Tokuda – which finally brings us to this episode, since he was fully in charge of it. Tokuda is a rising figure who’s very much tied to this team: his first main animator role was in The Seven Deadly Sins, his direction debut (always focusing on action) was on The Asterisk War’s second season, and now Grancrest is allowing him to do right about everything: storyboard, episode direction, regular and chief animation supervision, action direction, all while drawing key animation for the climactic moments just in this episode. His first appearance was on the very intense episode 4, but he truly won everyone over with #11, a much more emotionally loaded climax that has a refined kind of impact you wouldn’t expect from an action-focused artist who only just started directing episodes. Tokuda is the real deal.
─ And while it doesn’t quite reach the same emotional peaks as #11 (though it’s even more satisfying), #17 is another great showcase of what makes Tokuda’s episodes so special. He has perfectly adapted to Hatakeyama’s style, both his staging and the flat close-ups, which he sometimes gives extra oomph with carefully applied thicker lines. His ability to combine that kagenashi approach with block shading and fully stylized shadows is quite impressive, as are the many striking transitions in his episodes, which don’t feel like they belong in someone’s first attempts at storyboarding. And of course, being the action expert that he is, the fights are where he goes all out. Tokuda’s dynamism appears unconcerned by production realities, so if he deems it necessary to have an extensive sequence of background animation, he won’t hesitate – it’s no coincidence that Grancrest tends to feature them when he’s around! His action is defined by its eye-catching flow, but he controls the rhythm and knows when to pause to increase the tension through other means as well. Hatakeyama clearly hasn’t regretted giving him this much responsibility, so chances are that we’ll see him back to handle the final confrontation in the show. The uneven drawings in his episodes won’t please all fans, but it’s not by chance that he’s won over a prestige director so fast.
─ Since as I mentioned Tokuda isn’t invested in keeping consistent art, everyone’s idiosyncrasies come through pretty much unfiltered, and that means it’s worth an extensive look at who animated what. You won’t be surprised to learn that he personally animated the action climax where all those quirks we’ve been talking about are at their most apparent, but he had plenty of help by other talented folks. That’s the case of Takuro Naka, whom he trusted with the most complex rotations and tricky layouts (alongside Hajime Nakagawa) because he really believes in his potential. Masato Hagiwara handled some intense back and forths due to his force of expression, while Kazutaka Ema earned Tokuda’s praise with some damn cool hand drawn horses. And of course, Kazunori Ozawa’s brief appearance entailed hectic effects as usual, in particular a rather memorable explosion. As a final note, I have to say that this thoroughness when it comes to attributing pieces of animation to individual artists is only possible because Tokuda himself does an excellent job crediting them. Not content with doing a ton of work on these episodes, he then goes to check the uploads on sakugabooru to confirm the animators who worked on each scene, while also leaving brief comments about them on his Twitter account. I can only be thankful to him, for multiple reasons!