Long running action anime are no stranger to controversial production experiments, met with divisive reception among their fandom. The latest example is Black Clover #63: a highly experimental, rough but immensely ambitious episode crafted by a team that rebelled against the negative working environment.
The goal of this site is, for the most part, to celebrate the best craft that anime’s got to offer. We all know that this industry is an absolute mess, hence why every now and then we’ve got to share nasty secrets and point fingers, but at the end of the day it’s more fulfilling to talk about the things we love. And from a production standpoint, that means focusing on well-planned efforts, where the success of the finished product comes down not just to the skill of the artists but also to the framework that allowed them to shine. In spite of the almost inescapable poor schedules and abysmal payment, anime’s most impressive offerings tend to come from somewhat supportive environments that encourage the creators to do their best.
Now, forget all of that. Black Clover #63 isn’t a natural result of its circumstances – if anything, it’s a middle finger proudly standing against them. An episode that would have never happened in a production like this, were it not for certain individuals who rebelled against a hellish job. Those same people are the first ones to acknowledge that the result’s rough around the edges to say the least, but asking for polish from an episode that’s orders of magnitude more ambitious than it has any right to be would be unfair. And honestly: it doesn’t matter in the first place. Animators from different environments gathered to have fun and experiment within a project where barely surviving is the norm, and that’s an outstanding achievement in and of itself. This is a memorable fuck you to the industry that comes across with such energy and earnestness that the aftertaste isn’t even bitter.
Though I started by saying we’d rather talk about the positive aspects, in this case it’s important to establish just how dire Black Clover‘s situation normally is. Fans of the series are well acquainted with the rough art and cut corners. The constant complaints by the staff about having no time whatsoever are hard to miss, as are some questionable artistic decisions – there’s one layer of hell dedicated to this series’ textures – and even the fact that good work gets wasted for the sake of efficiency; here’s a recent example of just how ruthless the production can be, outright discarding excellent animation that’s already been drawn because many people in the team are convinced that finishing anything above the bare minimum is asking too much.
And honestly? They might have a point. As a whole, Black Clover‘s screwed. And the person most aware of that is series director Tatsuya Yoshihara. Rather than give up though, he’s decided to be just as obstinate as the protagonist of the show. His understanding of animation and wealth of connections made him excellent director material from a young age. Yoshihara’s always had his finger on the pulse of the animation community at large, including artists who are still amateur, which has allowed him to guide plenty of creators into the anime industry. And once they’re there, everyone’s willing to return to his aid whenever he needs it because he’s a delightful person to work with. You’ll struggle to find people who don’t recall their experiences with Yoshihara very fondly, even when the context is as stressful as in this case.
Unfortunately, his qualities can become a double-edged sword when in the wrong hands. Yoshihara was given control of the series… and then was abandoned by the studio, seemingly under the pretense that his connections should be enough to sort things out. As you might be aware, the animation producer is often the highest ranked ally of the creative team: someone in charge of assembling the crew in the first place, of arguing with executives so that the staff don’t get screwed over. A key position that Black Clover lacks. That’s not a euphemism implying that someone’s doing a poor job – the series genuinely doesn’t have an equivalent position; the closest you’ll find is Pierrot’s producer Naomi Komatsu, who’s got experience on the manufacturing side of things but holds a role that’s more geared towards caring about the financial benefit for the company than the health of the team. So, while plenty of management staff at Pierrot do care, the entire crew is doomed because of the actions of the higher ups. Yoshihara’s been forced to juggle a multitude of directorial tasks with management duties he shouldn’t have had to worry about. In spite of all the friends willing to help him, he’s shared his struggles to find not just animators and supervisors but even storyboarders. Keep this all in mind before you attack the staff.
That’s been the harsh reality for the production since its start. The adaptation undoubtedly has some highlights, but those are the product of Yoshihara & co’s obstinacy more than anything else. The reason this post exists, though, is that something exceptional happened later down the line. And to understand where it all started, we’ve got to look back at another special event: Boruto #65. While right about the entire world was marveling at the intergenerational and international animation feat, Yoshihara had a bit of a different reaction. Don’t get me wrong, he still was very impressed, but there was a tint of jealousy to his admiration as well. While Boruto‘s production has its own worries – even that episode was supported by the unholy amount of work that its director put into it – Yoshihara was outright jealous of the many talented in-house animators the studio provided on top of the freelance stars. So, wouldn’t it feel nice to pull off something of the same caliber in spite of the studio not supporting his team as they should?
After months of preparation – a sturdier schedule than the series ever had – that impossible dream led to episode 63. Without proper backing by the studio, Yoshihara had to get craftier in his approach. He relied on the professional debut of a handful of Twitter Animators, which is to say, amateur artists who’d made a bit of a name for themselves tweeting their eye-catching clips. KAI is still a student, but chances are you’ve come across one of his wonderfully frantic sequences if you hang around animation communities; his contribution to the episode isn’t quite as action-packed as he’d hoped, but it still shows an understanding of three-dimensional spaces beyond his experience. The same could be said about すご (real name Hayato Nishimaki?) whose professional debut was very much unlike his quotidian clips of a pissed off lady, but nonetheless effective. Independent artist Tatsuhiro Ariyoshi‘s (and his mother’s) first contribution to TV anime was a chaotic painting meant to evoke how otherworldly the nature of the protagonist’s power is, while Yuzu Kusakabe aka えばかす animated the most traditionally expressive piece of acting in the whole episode. Complete newbies Yuuki Yonemori’s younger brother mol, nakari, plus plenty of newcomers who still hold minor roles at their main studios like かせん (Akihito Furuya?), めしや (Yuuta Iino), and やま (Yuuki Yamashita) got trusted with important moments. There’s no shortage of new blood.
But at the same time, it’d be wrong to call this episode the result of recruiting youngsters on Twitter. Black Clover #63 is a chimera of idiosyncratic expression with little in the way of consistency – and it couldn’t be any other way, since the background of the staff is quite diverse. One of the major players was animation director Azure and his crew of Makaria-affiliated Korean animators like Moaang and Maring Song… plus his own virtual youtuber persona Anima Lyon, who drew some 2nd key animation. They weren’t the only non-Japanese animators, of course. Look no further than PEBBLE, who worked alongside recurring Sakuga Blog guests Gem and Till for some of the most kinetic bits of action in the episode, sprinkled with expressionistic cuts for good measure. If what you’re looking for is a more delicate way of expression, though, you can thank the SSSS.GRIDMAN group that Yusuke Kawakami dragged into the production, especially the corrections by animation directors Mayumi Nakamura and Takafuji Aya. The TRIGGER flavor continued with the Kanada-tastic undercover appearance by Kai Ikarashi (sporting the most ridiculous pen name of them all); that his very traditional sensibilities, as well as Kosuke Kato‘s similar style, fit just fine within an episode where many artists experimented with wild new digital techniques confirms that its only identity was refusing to have a set identity.
Is the result cohesive? Not at all. Even the members of Black Clover‘s core team put together some very distinctive cuts, following Yoshihara’s – and their own – vision rather than attempting to bring some normalcy to the heterogeneous spectacle. Isuta, one of the main animators in the series, animated a fading conscience sequence that would have felt right at home on Shinya Ohira’s extraordinary Wanwa the Doggy. But the most idiosyncratic scenes of them all, and for once rightfully divisive, are the Blender-based action setpieces by the aforementioned Kawakami and Shota Goshozono. Using 3D software to open up new doors for 2D animation is a phenomenon we’ve been observing many times in recent years, often following the same pattern; ideologues like Ryo-chimo are the first ones to experiment, which leads to both pragmatic approaches to the new tools like Kawakami’s modus operandi and wild tests like those of Goshozono.
Their contributions to Black Clover #63 embody both the potential of the new techniques and the shortcomings of their current usage. The ad-libbed storyboards by the animators themselves seek to exploit the exponential increase in scale that a battlefield conceptualized in 3D space allows. Goshozono’s chaotic sequence feels absolutely huge, though it admittedly gets dragged down by some assets that are so rough they feel like placeholders – and in some cases they sort of are, since the episode aired still missing some layers in his sequences. Kawakami’s major setpiece also has incongruous flow here and there, plus some rather rough-looking assets, but the high-speed action is thrilling and even manages to give painterly camouflage to the surroundings. He makes such a convincing case for the potential of placing hand-drawn characters in a 3D environment that his coworkers often seek to learn from him; it happened during the production of this episode, but also with its much more retrained applications in SSSS.GRIDMAN. We might not be at the point where the usage of these techniques is seamless – does it need to be? – but plenty of creators already see immense potential in them.
I don’t want viewers to misunderstand: the objective of this post wasn’t to shame everyone into loving this episode. Even as someone with a strong interest in diverse animation styles I had some mixed feelings on Black Clover #63. Since I knew this was coming, I caught up with the entire series to have the best context possible, and I can say with confidence that I can see the deliberate intent behind each unique sequence… but that doesn’t mean they all lived up to their potential. This was nothing short of a miracle for Black Clover‘s standards, and yet it was still tight enough that it featured renowned animators going uncredited because they weren’t fully satisfied with their work. Experimental pieces have inherent value, but that doesn’t mean you ought to enjoy them. What it does deserve, however, is respect. Admiration for Tatsuya Yoshihara, who found himself in an awful situation but refused to give up. And respect for the rest of the team, who believed in his dream to make something truly memorable in spite of the negative context. To all of them: thank you!
Episode 63 Staff
Storyboard, Episode Direction: Tatsuya Yoshihara
Chief Animation Director: Itsuko Takeda, Shirou Shibata
Animation Direction: Eri Irei, Toshiya Kouno, Makoto Shimojima, Satoru Shiraishi, Takafuji Aya, Mayumi Nakamura, Lazy Anime Lab (Azure), Tatsuya Yoshihara
JIWOO ANIMATION PRODUCTION
Kim kyoung hwan, Kim yoon joung
Key Animation: Tatsuhiro Ariyoshi, Isuta, Toru Iwazawa, Ebakasu (Yuzu Kusakabe), KAI, Kato Kai (Kosuke Kato), Kasen (Akihito Furuya), Yusuke Kawakami, Shouta Sannomiya, Kai Shibata, Tarou Tanaka, Sho Zama From The Anime Dunbine (Kai Ikarashi, please, this isn’t even a name, you’re making me cry), nakari, Hayato Nishimaki, Hidenori Makino, Tatsuya Miki, Meshiya (Yuuta Iino), Tatsuya Yoshihara, Yama (Yuuki Yamashita), gosso.blend (Shota Goshozono), Gem, Till, PEBBLE, mol, moaang
JIWOO ANIMATION PRODUCTION
Kim eun jin, Park jin gwang, Kim nam hyeon, Lee su yeon, Hong da yeong, Shin jae hui
Choi in hye
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