Yama no Susume / Encouragement of Climb is, three seasons into the series, the most ridiculous current production that barely anyone watches. Following up on the understated sakuga madness the previous seasons offered, we’ve got a crew that includes the youngest anime director, one of the most influential animators in this generation worldwide, a group that used to be studio SHAFT’s aces, one of the rising stars behind the upcoming The Promised Neverland anime, and much more. They all compliment an already exceptional core staff who at this point know exactly what this show needs, working under a solid schedule to boot. If you’ve been on the fence about giving this series a try, now is the time!
─ That Yama no Susume is an exceptional production is hardly a secret, at least among those who’ve actually given the show a try. Even the viewers with little to no animation literacy and not much interest in these matters can tell that something’s up with its execution of a concept that’s in theory so standard for modern anime – a group of girls doing a certain activity together. While the show is rarely an idiosyncratic spectacle (though it can be that when the time is right), its very careful portrayal of the subject matter, surprising emotional range, and a charming cast the show’s willing to develop meaningfully despite the short runtime make Yama no Susume something that sticks with you. The authenticity and joyfulness have managed to draw in enough viewers to keep the franchise going for this long. However, it was the audacity to build the second series (which expanded the episodes from 3 minutes to 13:30, with 2 cours to boot) around larger arcs that dealt with genuine emotional lows as if it were natural that cemented it as something special. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be fooled by its cute appearance, because the show is adorable, but beware that the show respects its characters enough to tackle their distress in a visceral way. If you’ve yet to watch it, the short length means that you’re always just one afternoon away from catching up!
─ For all that enthusiastic praise, the third season begins with a standard affair. Even if most of the footage is new, its first episode is in spirit a recap to get viewers reacquainted with the cast and their adventures. It’s clear that it wasn’t allocated many resources either, since despite the presence of some interesting names – like Shunsuke Takarai and animation director Atsushi Irie, who experienced first-hand one of the industry-changing series of events we wrote about recently – the episode itself is pretty modest. Not that a restrained Yama no Susume outing is bad by any stretch of course, as elements like its spacious layouts have become a given at this point. And since the staff have a perfect grasp of the appeal of the series, this reintroduction could only end with one of its quintessential inspirational landscapes that don’t pale in the comparison to the likes of Aria, in spite of their mundanity.
─ The second episode embodies the outrageous production process behind this series much better, starting with the fact that it was directed and fully key animated by the beloved china – not the country but rather the animation prodigy who became the youngest anime director of all time. As you might already know, he’s got a knack for capturing the appeal of the mundane in a way that stands out among his bombastic peers; this isn’t shown just with his animation, which skillfully depicts ordinary actions, but also in his illustration work that serves as evocative daily life snapshots. It’s precisely that talent that he’s making use of now that he’s started climbing the directorial ladder, since his episodes are notorious for using everyday moments to illustrate the head-space of the cast. This is best exemplified by the scene where the girls are considering buying expensive gear – the gap the protagonist Aoi perceives between her casual interest and the serious investment she believes the rest have is conveyed through the layouts themselves and some smart racking focus.
─ But since at the end of the day the show aims to be a comforting time, the episode pushes Aoi one step forward away from her various anxieties and towards her new goal: conquering Mt Fuji, which she tragically failed to do in the previous season. The path that will take them there is bound to be filled with amusing diversions too, as seen in this episode. Because as much as we can talk about china‘s fondness of the ordinary, pegging him as a strict realist would be a mistake; there’s plenty of fantasy in this episode he presumably storyboarded too (since there’s no credit for it whatsoever), and even more subdued scenes include fun exaggeration like Hinata comically wolfing down her lunch. China couldn’t be any more sincere when it comes to his influences, to the point that I probably don’t have to tell anyone who’s seen this episode that his casual sense of wonder comes from Yotsuba and the focus on gesture was born from his love of Kyoto Animation’s works. What’s perhaps a bit more obscure, though equally explicit, is that he adores his idol Yusuke Matsuo so much that his art currently resembles Matsuo’s older Yama no Susume drawings more than the man himself’s… despite him being this show’s character designer and the main reason his disciples are all over this production. All things considered, this episode is a great showcase of what makes china such an exciting prospect for this industry and why so many of his peers are attracted to his work – even his unmistakable hands are all over the episode!
─ The third episode shows Aoi’s timid but resolute growth via a charming side adventure that also reintroduces the viewers to fan and staff favorite Cocona, the member of the cast who may or may not be an alien from space. Katsuya Shigehara, a Yama no Susume veteran whose name keeps popping up on this site because studio BONES regularly entrust him with climactic moments, directed this episode with digital animator miyachi as the supervisor. The latter’s only recently started getting offers to work as an animation director, and having talked with her a fair bit, I can tell you that she was pretty worried about the outcome this time around; arriving right after a prodigy and before the iconic beast we’ll have to tackle next, she was worried her work would come across as an uninspired sandwich… and then got to relax once she saw the reaction to her episode was very positive, too. Miyachi‘s supervision accentuated the roundness of the drawings (as you’d expect from her current avatar) and further stylized the designs to put together something that’s adorable even by this show’s standards.
─ The pleasant roundness of miyachi‘s animation highlights an interesting contrast with the opening sequence, which was unveiled for the first time in episode 3. And that comes down to the person who used to be SHAFT’s ace animator: Ryo Imamura. Unlike that common soft approach anime aiming for cuteness tend to take, his work is full of rectangular forms that make fingers and limbs look particularly blocky, giving a rough feel as if we were still seeing the endoskeleton of the animation. Add to that the fact that he’s better known for the eroticism of his animation rather than cuteness and you understand why he was also very worried about the reception of his work – which means he was very relieved when everyone turned out to love the opening unashamedly full of his quirks!
─ And as I hinted in the intro, it’s worth noting that very important animation figures once tied to SHAFT assisted their old pal here; it’s too early to say whether Genki Matsumoto has abandoned the studio for good, but traditional painting specialist and rising animation star Taiki Konno definitely has, meaning that perhaps only Imamura’s mentor Genichiro Abe remains to sustain the studio’s need for sakuga bursts. Although Konno’s already found his main occupation as part of Tatsuro Kawano’s group working with Studio Colorido, he found time to assist Imamura on the trickiest sequence of the opening, which he drew the roughs for and also partly key animated. The ending was already quite cute and filled with nice tidbits of animation – like the aforementioned Shigehara’s contribution – but it’s this exceptional opening that in the end left the biggest impression.
─ If you thought that gathering almost every modern studio SHAFT animation pillar was impressive, wait until you hear about the episode fully handled by one of the most influential modern animators in the entire world. Norio Matsumoto‘s career is long and fruitful, filled with personal achievements but also industry-changing events like his mentoring of the digital animation youth back in the inception of that movement. His solo key animation appearances are a rare event to be treasured, not because he’s slow – far from that – but rather because he’s been in very high demand for decades. Matsumoto established himself as an action icon worldwide through his extensive work on the Naruto franchise, due to his exceptional draftsmanship but also the characterfulness of his work; it doesn’t matter how frantic or tense a confrontation is, his unchanging goal is conveying emotion through the expressions and the layouts themselves.
─ Because of that, people with an actual grasp of his artistic ethos won’t be all that surprised to see him storm a low-key series with no action whatsoever like this – one that he had already contributed to to boot. You’d think that a living legend like him would take it easy when tasked with an easygoing episode like this, but series director Yusuke Yamamoto was once again surprised by his earnestness. Matsumoto arrived at the very first meeting with trial layouts in hand, something the director had never experienced after 25 years in this role, and having read up on perspectives to realistically portray a classroom. The result was an episode that goes out of its way to feature desks that aren’t perfectly lined up and get more disorderly as time passes like it would in a real classroom, all while projecting Aoi’s worries onto the screen more effectively than Yamamoto’s storyboards had managed to before. His arrival to the production wasn’t a departure from Yama no Susume‘s overarching philosophy after all, but rather the most refined execution of it, from the outstanding naturality his drawings convey to the elegant rendition of Aoi’s anxiety; it’s precisely the subtle way in which the attractive layouts are distorted through her subjective lens when she feels the most pressure at the karaoke that I would single out as my personal highlight, among the many wonderful details this episode left behind. A perfect marriage of the narrative and production focus of the episode.
─ What’s a better follow-up to an episode fully key animated by an excellent artist to yet another one – the 18th instance of solo key animation in three seasons, an outstanding feat even if you consider the short length. Series director Yamamoto, who was also in charge of this episode, is aware of how exceptional this has become but actually sees the small team carrying this series as a natural thing, since that’s how anime used to be made before overproduction blew it all up. This third season has so far not even featured a clean-up crew for these one-man army episodes, leading to the cleanest credits anime can offer right now. And the person entrusted with this much animation responsibility was none other than character designer and chief supervisor Yusuke Matsuo himself, who enjoys doing hands-on animation work when possible. Since his attitude towards diverging styles is permissive to say the least and everyone’s drawings appear to be very polished before his input (which is unsurprising considering the amount of talent gathered and the comfortable schedule that’s allowed them to finish the production ahead of the broadcast), he’s still got the time to have fun animating his own designs.
─ And there’s no denying Matsuo, popularly known by his nickname fugo, does have a lot of fun drawing his Yama no Susume designs, hence why he tweaks them every single iteration. The gap between each version of his own designs is larger than the distance most other animators keep when drawing them, which makes the evolution of his animation quite interesting. As of late he’s been all about these perfectly defined silhouettes and shading that suggests realistic anatomy below the stylized cartoon exterior, making his work easy to spot. I appreciate the more cartoony fun he had with this episode in particular, especially his adorable shorthand designs. Much like Matsumoto’s iconic dotface, these aren’t random spur of the moment flourishes but rather consistent deliberate choices to turn visual economy into an asset of its own. It definitely enhanced an episode that also allowed a neglected character like Honoka to open up to the rest of the cast, but as much as I’d love to sit here singing its praises, there’s an obvious negative I have to point out as well. Yamamoto’s hobby being photography has always encouraged him to do extensive location hunting and provide materials for the show. Sometimes that works out great, but unfortunately most shots this time around were based off reference photos of the cosplayer [email protected]@ and that led to them trying to sticking too close to the filtered reality to… unfortunate consequences, especially in contrast to the animation. The team tried their best though, so there are some arresting shots in spite of that.
─ With this we reach the last episode we’ll be covering this time around, which also happens to be the halfway point in the series. All things considered, I’d say that the third season is less ambitious than the previous one, since so far it’s stuck to these short vignettes that lack the emotional scope of the best arcs in the second season. Is it worse then? As far as I’m concerned, not at all. Yama no Susume has earned these small weekly victories that are a joyful experience in their own right. And much of the charm in this sixth episode is owed to animation director Kazuaki Shimada, a product of Dogakobo’s golden age who’s been tied to fugo and this franchise ever since its inception, growing to be one of the leaders of this generation of artists; it’s no coincidence that skillful new voices like Yuuya Kumagai and Satoshi Furuhashi gathered under his watch, they always do! Shimada first stood out to fans after his delightful solo key animation episode in the second season, but he’d been a role model for his peers for even longer, and nowadays his mere presence in a project attracts his talented followers. That happens to be quite important at the moment, since he’s recently been appointed as the character designer and presumably chief animation director in the upcoming adaptation of The Promised Neverland. How kind of Yama no Susume to offer a great showcase of his work within days so fans can estimate what to expect on such a high-profile, anticipated title!
─ What is Shimada’s style like, then? It was gracefully summed up by his mentor, who said “he simply loves (Japanese) animation.” Of course he values the demeanor of the characters enough to articulate their acting as much as he sees fit, but he’s also unashamedly fond of the Japanese TV industry’s unique quirks, from the low drawing count that he deliberately exploits to the stock exaggerated expressions anime is so full of. The result is an appealing combination of thorough portrayals of life with a very anime-like execution, effortlessly switching from realism to snappy cartoon flair within the same scenes. And who needs fluid photorealism when you can get something this genuine with barely any drawings! Now since this wasn’t a solo key animation effort for a change it’s not as pure of an individual showcase as the previous episode; scenes like this appear to have been corrected by Shimada, but the animation itself (and that outrageous detail on the disheveled shirt after certain poses) don’t seem to be his thing. All things considered though, it’s fair to say the whole episode was imbued with his animation mentality, meaning that it’s not a bad idea for Neverland fans to check it out if they’re interested in its upcoming adaptation. Yet another reason for more people to watch Yama no Susume!
Key Animation: Atsushi Irie, Daiki Kato, Shunsuke Takarai, Akiko Takihara, Keita Togashi, Hitoshi Miyajima, Saori Yoshimura
Episode Director, Animation: china
Assistant Episode Director: Satoshi Furuhashi
Chief Animation Director: Yusuke Matsuo
Key Animation: Yukiko Iwata, Mitsutoshi Kubo, Manabu Shioda, Katsuya Shigehara, Masahiro Sekiguchi, Masaki Tanigawa, Riku Honda, Daisuke Yamauchi, Hiroki Wajima
Key Animation: Yuuya Kumagai, Kazuaki Shimada, Satoshi Furuhashi, Midori Matsumoto