The first Fate/Stay Night Heaven’s Feel movie has finally been released in bluray in Japan alongside some very juicy animation materials, so the time is right to tackle the outrageous production of this movie and talk about the staff that studio ufotable has managed to assemble.
Director: Tomonori Sudo
Storyboard: Tomonori Sudo, Takahiro Miura
Unit Direction: Kei Tsunematsu, Atsushi Ikariya, Takahiro Miura
Chief Animation Director: Tomonori Sudo
Animation Direction: Teiichi Takiguchi, Ai Asari, Keita Shimizu, Tetsuhito Sato, Shunya Kikuchi, Shun Yamaoka, Ricardo Shimabukuro, Koji Akiyama
Art Director: Koji Eto
Photography Director: Yuichi Terao
Key Animation: Atsushi Ikariya, Teiichi Takiguchi, Keita Shimizu, Makoto Nakamura, Nozomu Abe, Akihiko Uda, Hiromi Niwa, Ai Asari, Aya Hanzawa, Miyuki Sato, Tetsuhito Sato, Yushiro Hatano, Satoshi Takahashi, Atsushi Ogasawara, Gao Jia Wei, Hiroaki Otsuji, Akira Ono, Hirotoshi Arai, Masatoshi Tsuji, Ryuta Ura, Takeyoshi Omagari, Kim Bruges, Nobuyuki Iwai, Yuka Shiojima, Kosuke Uto, Yoshihiro Maeda, Yutaka Araki, Shunya Kikuchi, Masato Nagamori, Sakae Shibuya, Kaori Urata, Shun Yamaoka, Osamu Sumiya, Chie Yamamoto, Koji Akiyama, Masayuki Kunihiro, Shunsuke Yasuda, Mitsuru Obunai, Yaeko Watanabe, Hitomi Okada, Jun Yukawa, Akio Shimotsukasa, Yoshiyuki Okubo, Shougo Fujiwara, Akane Okabe, Sakiyo Hama, Fumihiko Tamura, Miho Kato, Atsushi Tanaka, Takashi Mamezuka, Takayuki Motegi, Yukiko Saijo, Ryo Onoue, Akikazu Tojima, Rio Shinzato, Noriko Fujimoto, Shoji Koyama
─ There’s no way to talk about Heaven’s Feel without addressing Tomonori Sudo. The trilogy’s director, its main storyboarder, character designer, and single chief animation director, which is to say that he’s conceptually behind this adaptation while at the same time also being the main figure behind its visuals; his fairly polished storyboards are the base for other people’s layouts and animation, which he then thoroughly corrects again before they’re turned into animation and gets checked once more, so this is a Sudo film to the bone. He had appeared in studio ufotable productions as an animator since their early stages, but it was around 2006 that he joined them for good. They were willing to give him opportunities, like his first venture as character designer on Coyote Ragtime Show, but there’s a more precise factor when it comes to his relationship with the studio: Sudo is a huge Type-Moon fan. He gladly reprised the role of character designer for Kara no Kyoukai, and ever since then his career has advanced alongside this franchise. Fate/Zero marked his debut as storyboarder and episode director, Kara no Kyoukai’s final film put him at the helm of everything for the first time, he became a recurring designer to the point of perhaps becoming the number one expert in adapting Takashi Takeuchi’s concepts to animation, and Heaven’s Feel is now the first major project he’s in charge of after insisting he was the man for the job. It’s easy to cynically look at ufotable’s many Type-Moon adaptations and claim they’re in for the money, but people like Sudo are living proof that a bunch of staff really feel passionate about it – even more so in this case when it comes to him, since this was his favorite route in the original game and Sakura is his favorite character.
─ Sudo’s first triumph arrives pretty fast, as the movie begins with extensive original material to give much more meat to Sakura and Shirou’s relationship. Even though this adaptation is unashamedly aimed at people with experience in the franchise (as seen by the fact that the opening sequence casually skims through previous material), the way we consume films and late content in a visual novel is pretty different, so Sudou decided to set proper foundations to the core relationship of the series. The result is an introduction with lots of warmth, with moments like Sakura’s early struggles with household chores that are cute on their own right, but that also serves to get across the weight of their bond and to support the parallels Sudou draws between the two main characters later. And it’s also a good excuse to have Taiga around for more scenes, which is as close to a metric of objective quality as this franchise has.
─ Acting remains as kind of a weak spot for a production that’s more impressive than ever, but Sudo at least made sure to pay attention to some character quirks like Sakura fiddling with her ribbon whenever she’s troubled. When it comes to animation highlights though, the first moment worth addressing is Mitsuru Obunai’s depiction of Shirou fleeing in panic. Obunai is a Kanada inspired animator who, even though he can hold back on his wild timing when projects lean more towards smooth movement, tends to be fairly easy to spot simply through the eccentric poses the characters tend to make. His hectic style went through fairly unfiltered in this scene, which doesn’t seem like a bad choice for a scene where Shirou is in such a state of disarray. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I appreciate some quirkiness in a movie this polished.
─ After a bit of an awkward recap, amusingly framed through Zouken’s bugs, comes what I imagine is the first major point of interest for fans: Saber vs Berserker. It’s a skirmish that doesn’t have the scope of later setpieces, but it feels like a reasonable evolution from ufotable’s TV efforts from the get-go. Besides their intent to make Berserk’s blows feel like they carry as much weight as possible both through the animation and SFX, the constant post-processing over the angriest servant was a clear priority production-wise – you can see many samples of that over here, if you’re curious about the process.
─ Albeit similarly short and preceded by one of the movie’s multiple instances of weird usage of computer assisted in-betweening, I find the second fight more interesting. Chains are quite the neat weapon to see animated and their hybrid of 2D&3D craft here lives up to that potential, plus Shinji getting wrecked very fast is both deliberate and very satisfying. Beyond that, it’s also notable due to the presence of action expert Atsushi Ikariya throughout. The movie’s top key animator, unit director for about a third of the film, and co-character designer is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in the project. His work appears to be all over the place in a whole chunk of presage flower so the spot of honor on the list of key animators seems entirely deserved, but on top of the cuts we know for a fact he personally handled, chances are that he used his directorial position to correct action layouts of other animators, spreading his presence even further.
─ In addition to all of that, Ikariya’s such a charismatic fellow that his presence alone attracted a bunch of fairly high-profile artists. Ai Asari for example, presumably the animation director in charge of this segment, has been a faithful pupil of him ever since she was one of the young animators in training on Ikariya’s Harmonie. And since he’s got many years of experience at studio White Fox (where he mostly worked as Atsushi Itagaki instead), you can also find some of the main animators affiliated to the studio like Daisuke Mataga and Asuka Mamezuka doing clean-up duties on this movie just because of their friendship, and Yaeko Watanabe drawing some key animation as well. The timing of this project is unfortunate for White Fox since they’re losing one of their greatest assets at a time when they’re busy and loaded with action-heavy titles, but I would expect to see Ikariya pop up back with his old companions whenever he’s available.
─ Sidenotes regarding the main staff, since we’ve brought up Itagaki. The movie technically has 3 character designers… but you might as well consider it all Sudo and Ikariya’s work, since Hisayuki Tabata’s presence is testimonial. His old designs have been overridden by Sudo and he personally doesn’t even consider it a project of his own, so either they credited him out of respect for his contributions to Unlimited Blade Works or it’s because they reused some minor sheets. Ikariya is also part of another trinity – accompanying him as unit directors we have Takahiro Miura, controlling the action from a more conceptual level starting with the storyboards, and the multitalented Kei Tsunematsu who you can find doing all sorts of tasks in this film, from painting to drawing backgrounds.
─ If you’ve checked the credits list in its entirety you might have noticed that there’s actually quite a few additions from the theatrical version, since the film had to get touched up a lot. Fancy as it’s always been, Heaven’s Feel is so ambitious of a production that ufotable still struggles with it despite the studio focusing on it for a long time and having a fleet of freelancers at their disposal. The composite kept getting readjusted (even before release) since Terao’s vision couldn’t be fulfilled in time, and the animation needed a big final wave of corrections between the theatrical release and the bluray. Due to that, a lot of clean-up artists and even a new key animator have been added to the credits, including important ufotable figures like Akira Matsushima, Takuya Nonaka, Takashi Suhara, Toshiyuki Shirai, and Takayuki Motegi who came to lend a hand after wrapping up other projects.
─ At this point in the film it’s already obvious that, spectacular action notwithstanding, the star of the movie might actually be its background art. Koji Eto’s approach as art director is hardly innovative, but his photorealism looks better than ever as depicted by a team who wanted to beat all their previous work. Ever since Kara no Kyoukai, at a point where ufotable’s own art crew wasn’t as robust as it is now, I’ve always felt that their titles excel at portraying worn-down urban scenery. There are countless shots in Heaven’s Feel that come across as real not just because aesthetically they’re similar to a photograph, but because they make sure to accentuate the decay of a place that has supposedly been inhabited for a long time. Even interiors have their own imperfections here and there, which goes a long way to make them feel like more than a backdrop. I won’t deny that some of the slightly fantasy-tinted shots are gorgeous, but I think it’s the worn-down city where the backgrounds thrive the most.
─ And if we’re talking about backgrounds, there’s something else that had a huge impact on the production: the 3D environments. They’re present throughout the whole movie, but the sprawling 3D model of Fuyuki city they built for the fight between Lancer and True Assassin easily takes the cake. Takahiro Miura’s absurdly ambitious action concepts got enabled to a whole new level, leading to a long sequence that was very taxing on the team (the overview cut on the road took 24 retakes for example) but that turned out to be the one they’re clearly proudest of. Miura’s desire to put together thrilling, over-the-top sequences that use space but aren’t really concerned with keeping it consistent is something that I’m always fond of, but the most impressive feat here is the synchronicity between the hand drawn and CGi elements, which is unparalleled when it comes to action in anime; sure there is a bit of an aesthetic clash between the character art and the photorealistic cars, and that digital explosion is a bit of a sin, but the way they made such a complex scene feel like a cohesive piece of animation is simply mind-boggling. Relatively unknown ufotable ace Akihiko Uda animated the part on the truck, while perhaps their most popular animator Masayuki Kunihiro followed up with the rooftop chase – which includes the official meme cut – but I feel like the credit for a scene like this really should go to both the animation and digital teams. What they put together wouldn’t be possible without everyone’s help.
─ On the other hand, the end of that fight can be mainly attributed to a single artist: Nozomu Abe. His ridiculously dense animation wraps it all up more spectacularly than any Lancer fan could have hoped for, turning a movie that should have been cruel to them into a relative treat. As usual, Abe uses an obscene number of layers to put together scenes that feel like the coolest thing you’re equipped to experience even when you can’t fully parse them. And also as usual, photography director Yuichi Terao uses his Gáe Bolg as an excuse to unleash the most aggressive lighting effects; overall I feel like Terao’s work is more refined than usual, adding both restraint and a bit more of technical mastery of his own art, so I don’t mind him going all out when it comes to Lancer’s inherently flashy style. If you have an issue when it comes to ufotable’s modern aesthetic though, this scene might be what will bother you the most.
─ Unfortunately, the production is so clearly structured around its action (it’s no coincidence that the animation materials are dedicated to the fights) that the movie struggles to leave as much of an impression after it peaks with Lancer vs True Assassin. The brief confrontation against Caster features some beautiful effects and debris, and Rider’s appearance lead to some more synergy between 2D & 3D staff, but nothing quite reaches the same heights. This isn’t to say that there aren’t other bits worth mentioning though, like the glorious recreation of the mapo tofu scene with questionable timing, or the fact that Shirou suffers from Araragi Syndrome and became unreasonably hot in his move to a film trilogy. More seriously though, the very last scene is as emotionally satisfying as the end of the first part could be, capping it off with Sudo’s final visual parallel between Shirou and Sakura, since one of the main points he seemed to want to get across is how similar yet opposed their situations are. As someone who wasn’t particularly excited over the prospect of 3 Heaven’s Feel movies, this first part was quite the positive surprise; it’s even more of a lavish production than I expected, and the director did as much as he could to make the core relationship more compelling. So far, I’m plenty satisfied. Which is to say – see you next year for the next volume of Heaven’s Feel Production Notes!