Before tackling this new season, it’s time to wrap up our coverage of Yama no Susume / Encouragement of Climb season 3 and explore at length why it’s not just a quietly spectacular anime production, but also an exceptionally efficient storytelling effort!
─ The last time we wrote about the third season of Yama no Susume the general conclusion we reached was it was as delightful as ever, although it lacked the sheer ambition of season two’s longer, more poignant arcs. The second half of the show directly addressed those relative worries, almost retroactively so; once it switched gears into more continuous storytelling, it became obvious how efficiently the first episodic adventures had actually been setting up the overarching narrative that dominates the rest of the show. We’ve got to give kudos to this franchise for its outstanding production, but ignoring how strongly written it was to begin with wouldn’t paint the full picture of what makes it so special. In spite of the low stakes and only having half the runtime that most anime has at its disposal, Yama no Susume‘s capable of putting together emotional, universally relatable conflicts while still having time to spare for plenty of self-contained joyful mountain climbing adventures. This is a simple show that’s earned its undying niche following by doing everything exceptionally well.
─ The turning point for this season is precisely episode 7, meaning that we split our coverage perfectly by accident. It follows Aoi and Hinata taking separate roads for once, after the latter’s plan to meet get boycotted by the existence of the curse we call “work”; the socially adept Hinata goes through some awkward moments as she tries to call out to the friend who isn’t glued to her back for once, while the timid Aoi shows that she’s able to stand on her own now, opening up to others and growing more competent at work. At this point the path that this season will follow starts becoming clear, but what’s impressive on a more immediate level is, as usual, the execution of those ideas. In an episode where the environment both characters are in is so important, the spacious layouts populated by believable crowds catch the eye. Much of this can be attributed to storyboarder Ayako Kurata, who appears to have taken some cues from A-1’s directorial star Noriko Takao. For all the studio’s issues, over the last few years they’ve managed to raise many noteworthy young directors from different backgrounds, giving them the opportunity to learn from the industry celebrities that work over there too. Although Kurata’s much more of a veteran than the likes of Toshimasa Ishii and Miyuki Kuroki, she’s still benefited a great deal from this phenomenon and grown a huge amount as a director – skills that now can carry over to other projects like Yama no Susume.
─ And of course, Kurata was lucky to have the best team at her disposal to translate those ideas into something tangible. The expansive shots she conceptualized wouldn’t be as impressive without Taiki Konno‘s fastidious animation, which puts as much care on the picture at large as it does to the small details, from the mob characters snickering to Hinata forcefully stuffing her phone in her pocket in a moment of mild frustration. Though animation director Satoshi Furuhashi was very much a regular staff member this season, this episode was clearly his main focus, not only as a supervisor but as key animator; amusingly enough, he apologized to Konno for tasking him with those excruciatingly troublesome scenes while he had fun drawing such a bouncy, fun sequence himself. Plenty of skillful, often overlooked animators accompanied them – Hayato Kakita, Kerorira, Hidenori Makino, just to name a few – so it’s no surprise that the episode was full of lovely little moments.
─ Comparatively, episode 8 is a much more modest offering. The awkward gap between the main two characters grows some more, and the unusual pairings lead to interesting new interactions, but it’s an energy conservation effort that allows both audience and production team to relax a little bit. Kazuaki Shimada returns only two weeks after his previous solo key animation episode, providing a few more cuts himself and plenty of corrections with his distinct round faces. This creates quite the contrast with episode 9, which immediately it follows up and yet feels like an entirely different beast since the new set of supervisors didn’t follow Shimada’s idiosyncratic style. Similarly, the return of Kurata as storyboarder and director (only two weeks after her previous episode as well) made the exact same setting look like a different, more intricately constructed and vast place. Stylistic differences are common in this series, but a two-parter like this highlights them more than usual. The pleasant trip proves to be the calm before the storm, ending in a nostalgic way that serves as the prelude for the big things to come.
─ I’m by no means exaggerating when I say that Yama no Susume S3 #10 is one of the most impressive episodes of TV anime this year. China is no stranger to this site, and of course not a newcomer when it comes to this series either. After directing and solo key animating the second episode, he moved onto perhaps the most important moment in the series: bringing all of Hinata’s worries to the forefront in a way that feels natural. The person dearest to her has grown from a social disaster to someone who can act independently and is willing to reach out to other people. She’s the one who pushed her in that direction and supported her throughout, but the sudden realization that Aoi can stand on her own makes her feel useless and lonely. This is continuously transmitted through the layouts that isolate her, framing that implies someone should be by her side, as well as through the lighting that China carefully regulated; Aoi’s new and rediscovered bonds lighten up, while Hinata’s life (literally) comes to a stop in the shade. This becomes most obvious by the end of the episode: a lonely Hinata walks by two background characters whose silhouettes resemble hers and Aoi’s, before actually coming across her and her new group of friends – light and shadow, with two signs meant to evoke traffic lights to make the metaphor even clearer. This whole ordeal could have simply been treated as childish jealousy, which to some degree it is, but Yama no Susume went on to explore the conflicting feelings at play, externalizing them in stunning fashion on this episode directed by someone who still in his early 20s. This production is still an impossible gift.
─ The reason why China could focus so much on the direction this time around, of course, is that he didn’t have to draw any key animation himself. Instead, the episode was handled by a crew of right about the best character animators from the current wave of new artists in the anime industry. Not exactly a poor trade-off, as attractive as China‘s own art can be. The person leading this ridiculously rich animation effort was none other than Noriyuki Imaoka, whom Yama no Susume veterans will recognize as the supervisor of season two’s iconic thirteenth episode. Much like in that instance, this episode is characterized by the diversity of styles. That’s no coincidence: despite having a distinct artstyle of his own, Noriyuki’s approach to supervision consists on identifying what makes each individual animator special and boosting that aspect through corrections and personal indications. He allows already proven talents to craft arguably their strongest work to date, without abandoning their own voice in the process – from the richly detailed yet lively scene in Kaede’s room by Makaria’s Eri Irei to Keiichiro Saito‘s start to the episode, much more economical in number of drawings and intricacy yet equally expressive. The constant style shifts are a delight for any viewer who appreciates individuality coming through, while at the same time maintaining enough cohesion and awareness of the tone so as not to break the immersion.
─ While everyone in the team did a sublime job, some scenes do stand out among the general excellence. That’s not necessarily due to a superior technical merit, but rather because they embody China‘s identity as a creator particularly well. He’s openly admitted that Naoko Yamada is his greatest directorial influence in the first place; this is patently obvious in his staging and lighting, the constant usage of feet and hands as the most honest means of expressions, and that Kyoto mentality that character acting isn’t reactions A and B, but rather everything in between. That doesn’t mean he has no personality of his own, however. Far from that. The enchanting scene with Hinata in the park strongly showcases those influences while also proving how much more he’s got to offer. It’s got the laid back, casual atmosphere with the seasonal component he loves to incorporate into his art, but also presents his riskier side, with lower drawing count and one scenery shot that would normally be handled by the background team being drawn by an animator instead. For this tricky sequence he trusted his friend and Aikatsu-loving prodigy Yoh Yamamoto, who continues his dual career as a relative Production I.G newcomer but also freelance star. Yamamoto actually apologized for how far he took the sequence: not only did he get away with that cut with the leaves that’s amusingly similar to his student animation, the cut with Hinata’s legs is animated on 4s (meaning one new drawing every 4 frames). Such a choppy approach can be a deal-breaker for many, but judging by the positive reaction, both him and China got away with their idiosyncrasies just fine.
─ The accumulation of talented individuals in this episode is such that we could be here all day going through the whole crew – ex-studio SHAFT ace Ryo Imamura, digital animation ringleader Takahito Sakazume, Toei’s source of hope soty, Khara and Takeuchi trained Jin Oyama, even the promising newcomer Maring Song. Many names that animation fans will easily recognize… but what about the ones they wouldn’t? I can’t wrap up the episode 10 coverage without mentioning the presence of mysterious (or are they?) people hiding behind pseudonyms, since they made a difference as well. I don’t necessarily want to blow the identity of people like Hokuto Sadamoto who chose not to get credited with their real name, but others approached it with more humor. And the funniest instance is without a doubt Niinu Mackenzie, who went as far as creating a joke persona for the occasion. The name is derived from Japanese celebrity Kenji Niinuma, an enka singer who had an amateur bike racing past under that same pseudonym, as a reference to Scottish racer Niall Mackkenzie. So who’s hiding behind this hilariously convoluted scheme? Considering the art and typography they’ve shared, the reference in his funny sequence, and that young Trigger animators immediately started talking about them, I’m fairly sure that’s in fact Kai Ikarashi, who’d already appeared on Fate/Apocrypha #22 under another pen name. Sneaking away from Gridman for a while was worth it!
─ But let’s return to the show itself for the final bang. Heartwrenching as it is to see Hinata’s self-destructive lashing because of everything that’s been going on, there isn’t much to say about episode 11. This is another energy conservation episode, supervised once again by Shimada, who had to wrap this up before moving onto The Promised Neverland – not that anyone can fault him for his output on this show, after acting as animation director in three of them and solo key animating one. This final outing is fully storyboarded by series director Yusuke Yamamoto, who did a particularly good job with episode 12. Yamamoto was able to get across to the animation team the importance of Hinata’s movement, exaggerating her walking cycles and gradually making them more forceful to highlight the injury she’d caused herself by being reckless. Exhausted and surrounded by nature, the two leads can finally be sincere, quickly bridging the awkward gap that had grown between them. That sincerity affects Hinata’s movement as well, as she no longer has to hide the effects of her hurt knee. But no minor injury can ruin a happy ending like this, which feels very rewarding after this surprisingly sorrowful season. With Hinata and Aoi becoming inseparable partners again, Yama no Susume season 3 can come to an end.
─ Except not really. Though episode 12 marks the narrative end of the series, it’s 13 that offers the final emotional and visual catharsis. The relatively conservative execution of the second to last episode hinted that this epilogue would be quite the spectacular victory lap, and that it was. Virtually nothing happens in episode 13, but it didn’t need to in the first place, as it’s a celebration for both the cast and the production team; rather literally so, since this final episode ends with a production babies credit, meant to honor the staff’s children born during the making of the series. Aoi wonders what present should she get for her special companion before realizing that there’s no point in obsessing over that stuff, since their relationship is so strong because it’s built on how much they enjoy hanging out together. As the audience we also do get some final gifts – Kurata’s most stunning scene before likely moving onto The Promised Neverland with Shimada, plus enchanting animation by the likes of Yuki Yonemori and Hironori Tanaka – but at the end of the day it’s also that feeling of companionship that we’ve come to appreciate the most. Yama no Susume‘s efficient storytelling, which is intrinsically tied to the exceptional production, has managed to turn this short unassuming series into an experience that its viewers will really treasure.
─ Although this third season is over, that doesn’t necessarily spell the end for Yama no Susume as a whole. I don’t mean this just because it ended with a hopeful See you again message, but rather because of the effect it had on the industry. Season 3 has served as the debut work for plenty of promising young animators, as well as the chance to take a step forward for up-and-coming directors. People from many fields, from production assistants to even a certain mangaka worked on anime for the first time throughout this season. Youngsters attracted to action titles have multiple gateways of their own into this industry, but for all of anime’s love of laid-back material, projects that offer a valid environment for new artists attracted to this kind of work are very rare. Right after the end of the broadcast, there was no shortage of tweets by other young animators claiming that they’ll definitely make it to season 4. I don’t know if their wishes will be fulfilled to that extent, but I can at least have confidence that this crew won’t disappear, meaning that they should have the chance to work on a similar project. So whatever that turns out to be, I’ll be looking forward to it!
Key Animation: Yusuke Adachi, Atsushi Irie, Eri Irei, Hayato Kakita, Ayako Kurata, Kerorira, Taiki Konno, Mizuka Takahashi, Akiko Takihara, Satoshi Furuhashi, Hidenori Makino, Ryosuke Murakami, Shohei Yamanaka
Haruka Ozutsumi, Minako Masuki
Key Animation: Satoshi Umizuka, Kazuaki Shimada, Zhou Zhenghao, Ryosuke Shinkai, Daichi Nakajima, Keita Hagio, YaXiao Liu, Shohei Yamanaka
Storyboard, Episode Director: Ayako Kurata
Chief Animation Director: Yusuke Matsuo
Animation Director: Shuuto Yamamoto
Assistant Animation Director: Rumi Abeshima, Yoshiko Saito, Kazutaka Sugiyama, Miyachi
Key Animation: Tatsuya Akitsu, Tomoyuki Oshita, Akira Koshiishi, Meng Long Shou, Manabu Shioda, Katsuya Shigehara, Eisuke Shirai, Masaki Tanigawa, Shoichi Funaki, Masumi Hoshino, Riku Honda, Etsuhito Mori, Shuuto Yamamoto, Hiroki Wajima
Key Animation: Noriyuki Imaoka, Ryo Imamura, Jin Ooyama, Keiichiro Saito, Takahito Sakazume, Hokuto Sadamoto, nanasi, Niinu Mackenzie, Satoshi Furuhashi, Masami Mori, Ken Yamamoto
Eri Irei, Moaang, Maring, Kiwan
Key Animation: Maria Ichino, Tomoyuki Oshita, Kenichiro Katsura, Mitsutoshi Kubo, Masahiro Sunaga, Akiko Takihara, Shinko Tsurumoto, Makoto Makabe, Daisuke Yamauchi
Key Animation: Rumi Abeshima, Yukiko Iwata, Takayuki Kitagawa, Hiroaki Sato, Akihiro Sueta, sute, Daichi Nakajima, Saki Hisamatsu, Noe Fukano, Makoto Makabe
Key Animation: Haruka Inoue, Kerorira, Takeshi Sato, Tadashi Shida, Ryosuke Shinkai, Hironori Tanaka, Kana Miyai, Shouma Miyazawa, Hitoshi Miyajima, Miyachi, Tomohiko Muraki, Masumi Yoshida, Yuuki Yonemori