Now that Tsurune‘s past its halfway point, it’s time to return to the series to examine various aspects; how the staff want to balance the meticulous depiction of Japanese archery with entertaining experiences and characterization, the intent behind the storyboards, the state of the production as a whole, and so on!
Key Animation: Yoshinori Urata, Rie Sezaki, Hidehiro Asama, Chiharu Kuroda, Sumire Kusano, Mariko Takahashi, Fumie Okano, Kunihiro Hane, Sae Sawada, Saeko Fujita, Yuki Yokoyama
─ The second episode starts us back where the introduction left us at: the bewitching first meeting with Masa. Though it takes a bit more than that for Minato to open up to a complete stranger, it seems clear from the start that the soothing, calm aura he exudes stands in opposition to the protagonist’s distress. And that only makes the reveal of the true nature of this arc more satisfying: the person who appears so confident to his eye suffered from target panic just like he did. Tsurune postulates that trauma isn’t something we can seek an immediate cure for, and yet we can alleviate its effects with the help of those who surround us. This isn’t lipservice either – the show commits to this message by having Minato’s friends act independently to try and help him, in a way that even some of their misguided efforts make them come across as supportive companions who play an active role in his recovery. I can’t presume to be an expert on the matter, but that felt like a very positive message.
─ That nicely written concept is similarly well-executed. Episode director Haruka Fujita twists the knife with expertise with the asphyxiating direction during Minato’s flashback and Seiya’s painful lashing out on his dear companion, but once again I want to highlight the work of art director Shouko Ochiai. The dazzling beauty of Masa’s archery, the atmosphere during their meeting that captured Minato’s heart in the first place, comes down to the background artwork to a great extent. The blue tones – affectionately dubbed Masa Night within the team – have a supernatural quality to them that isn’t present anywhere else in the show, but that might feel familiar to viewers acquainted with her work; much like these scenes in Tsurune, Baja’s Studio took a grounded setting (KyoAni’s actual studio in that case) and made it into a magical place at night, so it’s no surprise that she settled on similar vivid blues. The episode builds up to a gag that becomes hilarious in retrospect, fooling the protagonist and audience alike into thinking that Masa might have been a ghost all along, and that would have never worked were it not for the fantastical night scenes that Ochiai and her team envisioned.
Key Animation: Nami Iwasaki, Sana Suzuki, Ryosuke Shirakawa, Aoi Matsumoto, Rena Nakagawa
─ We’re three episodes into the series, all of them personally storyboarded by newbie series director Takuya Yamamura. Debut projects are stressful and Tsurune‘s production doesn’t have a massive buffer (more on that around the end of this post), so this speaks volumes of both Yamamura’s efficiency and Yasuhiro Takemoto‘s teachings as his new supervisor, since he’s known for drawing more storyboards than is standard as well. What’s truly important here for the viewers isn’t Yamamura’s well-known speed, however, but rather how that doesn’t entail a sacrifice in his thoroughness. Immediate details like the mark on Ryouhei’s forehead after resting his head on a broom coexist with more understated ones, like the fact that the girls in the club had noticed all along that someone must have been coming early to handle the daily chores. Minato, once framed in opposition to Masa, is now mirroring his shots. For someone with so much on his plate, Yamamura doesn’t seem willing to compromise the dense approach that made him so reliable as an episode director.
─ And speaking of which: the execution of this episode was in the hands of none other than Takemoto, who left a strong imprint despite not having boarded the events. As the person supervising the layouts, Takemoto granted all the environments a feeling of depth, something that he mastered during the production of Hyouka. That turned out to be a good complement to Yamamura’s storyboards as well, since his shots use space and position to a large degree; simple as it is, look no further than the framing during Kaito’s turnaround, which tells us all we need to know visually. Pairing up these two directors has proved to be a good choice for Tsurune.
Key Animation: Hiroshi Karata, Taira Yamaguchi, Ami Kuriki, Chika Kamo, Kyohei Ando, Shinpei Sawa
─ In the grand scheme of things, this episode might be considered one of the show’s less important offerings. And yet at the same time, it also embodies main conflicts for the cast and even the staff. Before the team can truly become whole, an episode like this that makes the “factions” clear was needed; episode 4 gets across just how comfortable Kaito & Nanao and Minato & Seiya (even if his schemes haven’t been working out all that well) are through the depiction of their daily life together, which only further accentuates the distance between both groups. The best shows focused on interpersonal bonds always keep in mind the inherent relationship asymmetry within groups of friends – there’s a reason A Place Further than the Universe is so far my favorite TV show of 2018 – and Tsurune appears to be aware of that, but it’s also clear that these 5 are so imbalanced they can’t function as a team. And that’s what this episode establishes, not just during the scenes where they clash, but also during their everyday interactions.
─ The most interesting aspect of the episode, however, is how it made the team behind it tackle the subject matter of the show. Chances are that you’ve seen people practicing kyudo in multiple pieces of Japanese media, since it’s a popular enough martial art. Making an entire show revolving such a contemplative activity, however, is a different matter. There’s a reason why most sports series are based on either high octane matches or exercises that allow creators to mine tension easily through other means. Japanese archery, on the other hand, is all about achieving a precise mindset and respecting intricate etiquette – a nightmare to capture in animation form and not rewarded with excitement that can be effortlessly conveyed. For series director Yamamura, much of the appeal of the series comes from the contrast between the youthful attitude of the cast and their ability to participate in such a solemn exercise, but the way those two aspects are balanced is very much up to individual directors since there isn’t a “right” answer. Episode director and storyboarder Shinpei Sawa obsessed with the authenticity of the ceremony, but as we see in later episodes, not everyone followed quite the same path.
Key Animation: Tatsuya Sato, Kayo Hikiyama, Seiya Kumano, Tomomi Sato, Momoka Yoshizaki
─ That change of pace arrives immediately. Episode 5 is fully dedicated to the main characters opening up to each other, starting to mingle in ways beyond the friendships that already existed. The script mandated some archery scenes, but even those focus on the behavior of the characters more than the delicate minutia mandated by kyudo tradition; Seiya’s somber reaction to the shooting order announcement, accentuated by the darker colors and his stiff expressions, are more effective than if he’d simply flipped out and made a scene. This isn’t much of a surprise considering who’s behind the episode: all-emotion Violet Evergarden duo Taichi Ishidate and Haruka Fujita, but especially Taichi Ogawa on the directorial seat. On the studio’s official blog, Ogawa had chimed in on the ongoing conversation about the depiction of an art as complex as Japanese archery. His opinion was that, though they felt the obligation to pay utmost respect to kyudo, the result of their work still had to be compelling as an animated series – hence why his episode leaning more towards the nuanced characterization is no big surprise, and why his favorite scene was simply the boy’s adventure going to buy food.
─ Since I haven’t been talking about the show’s animation all that much, let me use this episode as an excuse to bring up an anecdote I’ve already brought up elsewhere. Veteran character animator Tatsuya Sato – the ace of the studio’s Osaka branch – animated a big chunk of the episode, starting after its commercial break. And not by chance, that happened to include to scene where Minato and company take their shirts off, something he’s animated over and over at this point. I believe that fans are aware of mechanical and effects animators who receive job offers because of their specialization, but that actually extends to many more skillsets. Even in an isolated environment like KyoAni, this is known to happen a fair amount. In the same way that Hiroyuki Takahashi and Noriyuki Kitanohara are the studio’s de facto mecha animators, episode 2 of Tsurune already saw the return of Kunihiro Hane to animate a very similar cut to something he’d presumably done in Sound! Euphonium, since he’s quite good at handling hair with volume.
Key Animation: Seiichi Akitake, Kota Sato, Shiho Morisaki, Ryo Miyaki, Sayaka Watanabe, Hiroyuki Takahashi
─ Let’s be sincere: I can spare you the gushing about Naoko Yamada, since we’ve already got a recently updated piece on her entire career for that. The rivals of Kirisaki school benefited from having their proper introduction happen with a director like her at the helm; Shuu in particular felt like an unwavering force because of Yamada’s camerawork, quick to point out the unrest in the club but steady as a rock when he’s the one shooting. I’ve got to say though, it might be the whimsical scenes at the start and when they return to the club at the end that I’ll remember most fondly, as a reminder of what her early work used to be like. Not that I’ve got any issues with her modern output, but she also handles dorky teenagers with a grace no one else has.
─ One thing I didn’t expect to have to bring up, especially on a Yamada episode, was the rather modest job Akiko Takase did as animation director. I wasn’t bad by any stretch (if anything Tsunoda’s appearances are the weak link in the production), yet it lacked her usual flamboyancy and got rougher than usual on far shots. This seems to be a direct consequence of the huge workload she’s faced over the last few months; after wrapping up her first major project in the form of Violet Evergarden, Takase’s already appeared as a supervisor in 6 episodes of Free! DF and Tsurune. No matter how fast is she is and the assistance she’s had in previous cases, this time she had to face this episode all by herself and with understandable fatigue, on a production with a tight schedule by KyoAni standards to boot. Of course the quality of her work would take a hit! Let this be a reminder for the studio to treat one of their new animation prodigies with care.
Key Animation: Yoshinori Urata, Rie Sezaki, Hidehiro Asama, Chiharu Kuroda, Sumire Kusano, Mariko Takahashi
─ The last episode we’ll be covering today was a necessary evil. I don’t mean to say the quality was any poor – it confidently kept the excellent streak it’s had since episode 5 as far as I’m concerned – but it was the mandatory humbling moment for the main characters, harsh for both the boys and the girls in the club. Since I believe these episodes become more satisfying when/if they lead to overcoming those struggles, let me end instead by talking about the aspect I brought up in the previous paragraph: the production itself. How is it faring then? Then answer would be well enough, though with reservations and some mysteries (such as the disappearance of Chiyoko Ueno, the studio’s best animation director). That things aren’t falling apart should be obvious with a single look at the production values and the credits; visuals as stable as ever, and 5 consecutive episodes key animated by just a handful of people… to the dismay of animators from other studios, who are still amazed by KyoAni’s ability to pull this off on the regular.
─ So, what’s the problem? For the viewers, the (relative) issue is that the show’s a conservative effort for the most part. Since the intricacies of kyudo require them to be extremely careful and Tsurune happened to be placed at the end of one of their production runs, there’s less ambition to the acting than we’ve come to expect from the studio – though I think the strong design work in all respects makes it an attractive show still. And when it comes to the staff, the problem is simply time. If you want a precise example: episode #7 director Kitanohara attended animation meetings in late September, had begun checking his team’s work by the end of October, and as of last week he’d already moved onto something else. Which is to say that the time assigned to each episode is perfectly average, but the buffer of finished work isn’t as sturdy as usual, which puts more pressure on the team. As you can see, the key animation unit behind this episode includes the same people who animated the first half of episode 2, whereas the previous episode was handled by the crew who animated half of the first episode. The staff rotation is always very transparent and the studio’s model has proven to work exceptionally well, but things do get tougher after a few productions pile up on their shoulders. Though as mentioned previously, Tsurune‘s weathering it well enough!