- Best Episode: Boruto #65
This year’s most breathtaking and action-packed sakuga episode was brought to us by Chengxi Huang, a rising star in Boruto’s production team and prominent figure among the Chinese animators in the anime industry. He served as the storyboard artist, episode director, as well as animation director, and his precise instruction translated well into intense fight scenes inspired by martial arts like Wing-Chun Kung-fu. In addition to his own effort – working over 500 hours per month to monitor every detail – Huang successfully led an international coalition of animators; we got to experience the work of industry veterans like Tetsuya Nishio and Huang’s own mentor Hiroyuki Yamashita, Chinese talents like Juansheng Shi and Optical Core, as well as Western webgen animators.
Since its broadcast, this episode’s become a hot topic in the Chinese anime community. Many say that for the first time they’re aware of the creators behind their favorite shows. Huang has also been invited to speak on stage and give interviews about his experiences and dreams as a Naruto animator. I wish him good luck!
- Best Show: Yama no Susume Season 3
Watching Yama no Susume live every Thursday night during this past summer was one of my most pleasant experiences following a TV series. It tells the story of five adorable and ambitious girls aiming to conquer nature, with wonderful chemistry between the two main characters Aoi and Hinata despite dissonance being one of this season’s themes. And thanks to its loose schedule and the director’s effort to maintain a small crew, it also was blessed with solo animated episodes the likes of Yusuke Matsuo, ちな, and industry legend Norio Matsumoto. Chief supervisor Matsuo takes loose control over the animation directors of each episode, offering us a chance of noticing individual styles – if you’re the kind of viewer who appreciates that, there’s much to offer here. Besides his well-received solo episode, ちな was also in charge of episode 10, a stunning display of his talent when it comes to direction and compositing. The presence of the aforementioned Matsumoto is also significant, as he’s among the most distinguished animators in history yet has been rather inactive recently.
Even though I only started watching previous seasons as late as this year, I’ve become a huge fan of the mountain climbing girls. Yamasusu‘s definitely a great choice if you’re looking for a relaxing show.
- Best Movie: Liz and the Blue Bird
Liz and the Blue Bird is an atmospheric film. Naoko Yamada is devoted to depicting that one last instant before women reach maturity, and Futoshi Nishiya put just as much effort into painting an illusionary world for her. Every viewer can’t help but become a yuri fan, poking noses into this world through a layer of glass and barred from entering. In this birdcage named school, a maiden’s every blink, every hair flip, every finger touch carries a delicate yet strong emotion, which remains intense from the first second till the ending theme.
- Best Opening: That Time I got Reincarnated as a Slime Opening (link)
Ryouma Ebata’s one of the most renowned animators here in China, not just among sakuga maniacs but also ordinary anime fans. His iconic exaggeration of upper body swing in character
movement often reminds people of arrogant villains in live action. Last year, Ebata proved his artistic style works perfectly well in fighting and swordplay scenes during his almost solo animated episode of Princess Principal, and he followed that up with some more thrilling action in this opening sequence for That Time I got Reincarnated as a Slime. In addition to the well-coordinated choreography and creatively used smears, the character animation in this intro is remarkable as well. This cut of Rimuru leisurely turning back after chopping off a snake’s head struck me as an outstanding display of relaxation.
- Best Ending: Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card Ending (link)
Another solo animation effort by legendary veteran Norimitsu Suzuki. In the early 00s, only a handful of Japanese anime went on air on Chinese TV. And Cardcaptor Sakura was one of them, making this a nostalgic childhood memory for many Chinese anime fans. We got to see experience the series returning with some of its original staff – including Suzuki, who this time put together an ending packed with elegant character animation. His work tends to allocate an above-average number of frames to capture every detail, an approach that worked perfectly for the portrayal of this show’s lovely characters. This is actually a good example to learn the concept of shigusa (仕草), which describes appropriate acting that fits the personality through animation; you could feel Sakura’s purity and shyness from just some simple gestures.
- Best Composite: Blade Smash PV
Although Shingo Yamashita humbly stated that he did nothing more than slight adjustments to color and unification on exposure in the compositing process for Blade Smash‘s promotional video, you could still notice his fashionable style as a paper-less pioneer in every detail – from hue and shading to effects like lightning, explosions and debris. Yamashita’s skill is demonstrated as he manages to integrate the idiosyncratic styles of a group of young animators and reach their desired goal. For animators and sakuga fans, his photography properly copes with and complements the animation; for ordinary viewers, it brings together what becomes basal components on the screen. Special effects blend into the frame in harmony, neither stealing the show from the animation nor exposing the original texture of the brushwork.
- Best Animation Designs: 22/7
22/7 is an idol project like no other – not only because an industry titan like Yukiko Horiguchi was in charge of (re)designing the cast based on concepts from different artists, but also when it comes to the production process afterward. Horiguchi teamed up with gifted director Shin Wakabayashi, the one and only star manager Shota Umehara, plus a bunch of young and promising animators to create 8 lovely shorts that focus on the daily life of idols. And she once again proved she’s got what it takes to be a trendsetter when it comes to crafting appealing female characters. This series of short films is definitely worth checking out, and I’m already looking forward to any future development.
- Creator Discovery: Hitomi Kariya
Hitomi Kariya first caught my attention when her illustration for a TV drama earned the praise from senior animators like Chikashi Kubota and even Toshiyuki Inoue. Some research into her profile drove me to a Sakuga Blog post that introduced her as an illustrator for the Animator Dorm project. Her doodles capture the natural state of characters in simple strokes, and her animated clips are also impressive. After her debut as key animator and animation director in Shingo Yamashita’s Blade Smash PV, I’m really looking forward to her future work in the anime industry.
- Best Episode: SSSS.GRIDMAN #09, Yama no Susume S3 #10, Hugtto! Precure #04 & #16
Though I can’t say the same when it comes to all categories, the competition for the best episode’s been fierce and colorful. If you made me choose between SSSS.GRIDMAN #09, Yama no Susume S3 #10, Hugtto! Precure #04 and #16… I simply wouldn’t. Each of them is a beast of its own, so rather than waste time trying to figure one which stands on top, I’d rather acknowledge them all as the best episode of the year – a title they deserve.
While they’re not quite on the same level, there’s been a few episodes I’d simply classify as a joy to watch; the likes of Boruto #65, My Hero Academia #49, Black Clover #63 (its beauty resides in its flawed nature), Darling in the FranXX #01, Tsurune #09, and… whatever episode of Violet Evergarden you might pick, really. Pokemon Sun & Moon #97 is another episode I look back at fondly: it was a collaborative effort by lots of alumni of the same university, all gathered to work in one episode, creating a balanced mix of veterans and youngsters who’d barely started their professional career.
- Best Show: —
Let me get this straight: I don’t think any show in 2018 earned this distinction like the winners in previous years did. Nothing seemed to clear the bar, either lacking the consistency throughout its broadcast or the sheer brilliance and ambition. Since we’ve had three Kyoto Animation TV productions I can’t say there weren’t candidates, but even the one closest to be crowned as 2018’s best animated show – Violet Evergarden – falls short of that.
- Best Movie: Liz and the Blue Bird
2018 has been a great year for movies. And topping them all there’s Liz and the Blue Bird, one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen, period. That said, there also were many contenders that would have been respectable winners had they been released any other year; particularly strong offerings from long-running franchises like Dragon Ball Super: Broly, Doraemon the Movie: Nobita’s Treasure Island, and Pokemon the Movie: The Power of Us, some of the best-looking theatrical projects in their respective series. Even the movies I didn’t get around to seeing appear to be quite strong: Mamoru Hosoda releasing a film equals a good time, people seem to love Penguin Highway‘s quirkiness, and even the second part of the Eureka 7 Hi-Evolution trilogy promises some awesome action.
- Best Opening, Ending, Or Music Video: Baby I Love You da ze (link)
Trust the everlasting partnership between Rie Matsumoto and Yuki Hayashi to lead to the best music video and/or chocolate commercial you could have ever dreamed of. Featuring Koto as a highschooler and a lovestruck kid escorted by the Kyousougiga gremlin children, Baby I Love You da ze was a true blessing from the start. Add to the mix the studio BONES production muscle (supported by the likes of Yutaka Nakamura and a mysterious Hayashi acquaintance), plus a BUMP OF CHICKEN SONG, and you get something so strong that no opening this year could have hoped to outshine it.
- Best Composite: Blade Smash PV
Talking about the best composite work in this industry’s become synonymous with Shingo Yamashita‘s name. Over the years he’s evolved from a digital pioneer into an acclaimed director, followed by an avid legion of animators dying to collaborate with him as he still comes up with new techniques to present their work in the best way. His skillset is already as wide as it gets, and in this era where the role of director of photography’s becoming crucial, his unrivaled vision sets him apart from the rest. As Yamashita himself has said, his goal isn’t just to showcase the raw (and great!) drawings he works with, but also to enhance the animation in the finished product. And that’s something he excels at – a simple look at Blade Smash’s PV will show you that he plays on a league of his own.
- Best Animation Designs: Dragon Ball Super: Broly, Doraemon the Movie: Nobita’s Treasure Island, Liz and the Blue Bird
My vote for TV designs would go to the continuing Pokemon Sun & Moon anime, a game-changer with the unfortunate side effect that even a solid production like this year’s movie iteration of the franchise doesn’t quite click for me. If we look at new offerings, there’s been a similarly revolutionary change for another series: Dragon Ball Super: Broly and its designs by Naohiro Shintani. They bring a malleability to the table similar to that of Sun & Moon, so you could actually draw many parallels between the situation of the franchises at the moment. If they manage to retain Shintani’s work for the inevitable second season of Dragon Ball Super, the series will have found a new stride.
In the wake of talking about theatrical redesigns of TV franchises, I can’t ignore Doraemon the Movie: Nobita’s Treasure Island. Though he’s been involved with the series before, Yoshimichi Kameda taking on the role of character designer came as a sweet surprise for most of us. His work was as animation-friendly as ever, but in the end, what ensured the movie’s success was his thorough supervision and all the industry connections he exploited. Last but not least, I’ve got to praise another movie redesign just as enthusiastically: Futoshi Nishiya‘s work on Liz and the Blue Bird. Not the most animation-friendly designs of the bunch, but you don’t need to worry about that if you work at Kyoto Animation and can simply focus on creating the most perfect embodiment of the movie’s needs, with the knowledge that your animation team will be able to adapt to that and follow your lead.
- Creator Discovery: Shunsuke Okubo, Dennis Cablao
It’s honestly quite hard to keep track of all the new animators turning up in the industry these days; things are so tight that artists as young as high schoolers are making their professional debut in anime, plus we’ve got all the international voices irrupting into the scene that make the pool of talent even larger. Since narrowing down the entire industry to a single candidate is so tricky, I’d like to reduce the scope to the new figures emerging at a particular studio: Toei Animation, the largest player around. And when it comes to them, the two names I’d pick above all others would be Shunsuke Okubo and Dennis Cablao.
Okubo gained notoriety thanks to his work in Hugtto! Precure and it’s easy to see him becoming a big name sooner rather than later; his attractive drawings and effects expertise, plus that palpable Koudai Watanabe influence in all his work, make him the kind of artist likely to grow a big following. On the other hand, Cablao might struggle to turn heads with his animation in the same way, and yet he’s my greatest Toei discovery… or rather, Toei Phils. discovery. This subsidiary in the Philipines is rather infamous among fans, as they’re the offshoring branch flooded with requests by the main studio to sustain all their productions, and quality takes a toll when your priority is speed. With that in mind, it’s been great to notice an animator capable to regularly put together eye-catching (if rough) sequences. It’s a remarkable achievement that brightens my mood and has been raising my expectations when watching Phils. episodes. And it’s not just me – his animation has already been noticed by the studio headquarters, a development that made him quite happy. I’m all in favor of cute moments like these.
- Best Episode: Yama no Susume S3 #10
There’s something amazing about seeing the stars of digital action suddenly delivering best character animation driven episode of the year.
ちな‘s Yama no Susume S3 #10 was an amazing experience, both in terms of animation and direction, contained within a half-length episode. The cues taken from KyoAni’s Naoko Yamada were clear, making the episode melancholic, down to earth, character drama driven, and more importantly, well-crafted in terms of compositing. Digital animators definitely have more contact with post-production matters, given they work on their tablets, and often can improve their work without the need of photography crew. Adding this kind of experience and the study of Yamada’s work makes for a stunning looking episode, from the blur that creates a realistic depth of field to the lighting that makes the character fit within the backgrounds while also highlighting the art.
The animation itself was also a sight to behold; while the credit deservedly went to many of the guests (the likes of Kai Ikarashi, Yoh Yamamoto and soty), my personal hero was animation director Noriyuki Imaoka. Last year I awarded him as my Creator Discovery, yet back then I only praised his animation skill and a set of influences similar to ちな’s – just look at the hands the both of them draw. What I didn’t expect, though, was him to take the next step up in his career and become such a great supervisor. He added so much life through his corrections, in a way that complimented the director’s initial vision. It warmed out my heart to later see half the industry talk about his amazing work on the episode. His future’s so bright!
- Best Show: Yama no Susume Season 3
You might be starting to see my bias here… I’d been awaiting this show for a good couple of years with excitement and fear; could Yama no Susume S3 replicate the success of season two in spite of the changes in the careers of the original staff and the industry itself? As it turns out, they could even top it! The third season was a wild ride for sakuga fans, featuring top creators from all over the industry: the likes of Ryo Imamura and Miyachi as regulars, episodes fully key animated by aces like Norio Matsumoto, ちな, and Yusuke Matsuo, plus guests on a caliber that rivals last year’s Fate/Apocrypha #22. But most importantly, it maintained the production philosophy that many other shows could learn from. Yama no Susume offers the kind of creative freedom that allows each episode to have a different vibe to it, as if each storyboarder and supervisor spoke directly to us, but without silencing the voices of each animator either. Not all viewers enjoy seeing quirks like the constantly shifting designs, but I’m sure the staff enjoyed this taste of freedom!
And honestly, so did I. Thank you Yama no Susume for being the best example of everything I love the most in this industry.
- Best Movie: Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms
I’ve done the worst possible thing: I watched Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms right before writing my entry for the awards. And as it often is with good movies, now I can’t stop thinking about it! The plan, as recently as yesterday, was to write about Liz and the Blue Bird. And while I still consider that a better movie overall, this weird recency bias makes me unable to think of anything but Mari Okada‘s blockbuster.
Don’t get me wrong though: this movie is a visual spectacle of the highest caliber. The duo of Okada and Tadashi Hiramatsu, who had the strongest creative involvement, might not have the revolutionary directorial vision of the Yamadas and Igarashis of our world, and yet they crafted an amazing world that felt surprisingly real and lived-in. Kazuki Higashiji deserves a lot of credit in that regard; he’s always great at what he does, but it’s been a while since he delivered such outstanding work – probably since A Lull in the Sea. I loved how three-dimensional the background work was, exploiting the CGi structures that were later textured by the BG artists. And of course, can’t forget about the animation. Though it’s excellent overall, my shout out goes to one of the greatest animators of all time: Toshiyuki Inoue. I’m not sure there’s ever been another case of an individual animating almost a third of a feature film with such large scope all by themselves. And despite that workload, his scenes all feel huge, full of realistic movement down to the smallest details. Those jaw-dropping dragon scenes!
- Best Opening, Ending, Or Music Video: Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress – Ran: Hajimaru Michiato Opening (link), Persona Q2 Opening (link), Blade Smash Opening (link), CRYSTAR Opening (link)
This has been such a great year for game openings and PVs: Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress – Ran: Hajimaru Michiato, Persona Q2, Blade Smash, Tatsuya Oishi‘s CRYSTAR intro, even the flood of badass work for otherwise unremarkable mobage. Sure, a bunch of them are the kind of high profile side projects we’re all used to, but there’s an undeniable trend of mobile games and such managing to tempt big names like Shingo Yamashita by offering higher rates and more reasonable schedules, and sometimes not restricting their creativity to boot. A beloved creator like Rapparu already proved there are alternative ways to achieve self-sufficiency in Japan’s commercial animation space other than anime, and mobage’s becoming a solid option for that. So let’s not be sad just because some of our favorite artists are choosing dubious games over cartoons!
- Best Composite: —
- Best Animation Designs: Liz and the Blue Bird
Being a huge YamaSusu fan, this spot should be reserved for Yuusuke “fugo” Matsuo and his mountain girls, but let’s not be ridiculous: it’s the third season and the show’s already dominating my awards. Besides, there was something even better this year! Futoshi Nishiya‘s reimagination of the characters from Hibike! Euphonium for Liz and the Blue Bird knocked it out of the park so strongly that I applaud everyone who can go back to the original designs by Shouko Ikeda and not feel something’s missing. Leaner characters, fewer shadows, baggy and natural looking clothes – everything that I love right here. The only thing that wasn’t to my liking was the thin lineart, but I do understand its important role within the director’s vision, so no qualms in the end! Bless the duo of Naoko Yamada and Nishiya!
- Creator Discovery: ちな, Kai Ikarashi, Kodai Watanabe
We all knew these guys as animation prodigies we’d been observing for a while. But 2018 is the year that gave them all an opportunity to deliver amazing work as directors and/or storyboarders as well; sure, technically ちな and Kodai Watanabe‘d already made their first step into their directing careers before, but those hadn’t been as big of an event, with so many of their friends in the animation industry coming to their aid. The former’s Yama no Susume S3 #10, the latter’s Hugtto! Precure #16, and of course Kai Ikarashi‘s SSSS.GRIDMAN #09 – if you haven’t watched them, you’re missing out! It’s hard to believe such well-directed episode came from animators without much or any prior experience in direction, yet here we are, with three best episodes of the year material by such people!
And if you consider that cheating, then an ‘actual’ discovery for me was Yusuke Kawakami; I’m not thankful to Black Clover for many things, but this would be one of them.
- Best Episode: Black Clover #63
This year’s been quite eventful when it comes to standout visual spectacles; we saw a lot of young talent come into their own, with multiple appearances from familiar faces from Twitter on certain shows. It’s hard to pick between them but the most recent outing, Black Clover #63, really sparked something. It isn’t completely flawless, yet the wealth of different approaches and the promise of some of the experiments we saw on this episode stuck out to me. We’ve seen these tools used before by some of the animators on the episode but Yusuke Kawakami and Shota Goshozono‘s sections in particular really show a lot of interesting possibilities of how 3D tools can be used in the future. It’s gonna take some working out but I’m extremely excited about what we’ll see from them in the future.
The 3D Itano Circus that mixed in the traditional effects was the most successful experiment, as far as I’m concerned. The main sticking points thus far are the quality of some of the assets and some of the work not being fully composited, as you could see in genga comparisons that certain layers were missing from the final product. I wish they had more time to get those assets looking better, but that may not always be possible given the poor schedule. In any case, people like Gem, Till, Isuta Meister, PEBBLE, Kai Ikarashi, and many others managed to produce one of the most interesting episodes in a long time – and a very fun piece of art to dissect. I’m always amazed that Tatsuya Yoshihara is able to put together episodes of this caliber despite the circumstances, so I’ll always be grateful to have him as the show’s director.
- Best Show: Sirius the Jaeger
I found myself enjoying fewer and fewer shows as the seasons went this year – something that’s got less to do with their quality than it has with their easy, timely availability (*cough*thanks Netflix*cough*). I’d have picked That Time I got Reincarnated as a Slime if not for Sirius the Jaeger finally coming out fairly recently. Seeing Masahiro Sato as the action director on the first trailer with Masahiro Ando at the helm!? Man, you couldn’t come up with a better team for me. The character designs were appealing, the setting was well realized, and the action was really fun. Mixed with a pretty straightforward but sincere story, I had a blast with it. The choreography mixed with some parkour and the polished effects work were all very well executed. Sato is one of my favourite animators and he hadn’t appeared on anything in while, so I was glad to see new work in this volume on a single production. I’ve yet to be disappointed in his work.
- Best Movie: Liz and the Blue Bird
Considering the characters this movie focused on weren’t my favourite, this was quite an achievement. I enjoyed Sound! Euphonium a great deal and that didn’t change much here despite the shift in perspective. The story benefits greatly from Naoko Yamada‘s flawless direction, as the film leans heavily on the character animation to get emotions across; focus on not just facial expression but also body language, plus the soft line work and the light colour palette. Unlike the TV show, shading and highlights are much more subdued, which does wonders for this particular tale – it simply fits characters like Mizore and Nozomi and a story this low key. It can be harder to get across in a TV production, but in this movie, the differences in body language are a story in and of themselves. We get to compare Mizore at the start and at the end, the framing of the relationship and how the characters express themselves. It’s a lot more engaging than the glimpses into it we got in the show. The big appeal of Kyoto Animation for me has always been the strong character animation and on a bigger scale like this, that’s allowed to be more of a focus. I enjoyed that a whole lot.
- Best Opening, Ending, Or Music Video: Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card Ending (link)
Even after all this time, Norimitsu Suzuki is still the undisputed master of anime endings. He remains so incredibly versatile no matter what he’s animating that it’s hard to put into words just how good he is.
- Best Composite: —
- Best Animation Designs: That Time I got Reincarnated as a Slime
Ryouma Ebata, one of the greatest walk cycle animators of all time, blessed us with some simple but really appealing designs for this That Time I got Reincarnated as a Slime. Rimuru in slime form is endlessly endearing, and still adorable in human form as well. No overwhelming shading and highlights, but easy to draw designs with plenty of opportunities to have fun animating secondary movements; this is best showcased in Ebata’s OP and ED, where the versatility of these designs adds to the really endearing story, looking great in motion and just as strong as stills. I can’t find many faults with them and they’re a big part of what drew me to the show.
- Creator Discovery: Hirotaka Tokuda
For this I’ll focus on someone whose style I was finally able to fully grasp after a bunch of their work was confirmed last year – kinda cheating, but 2018 was a milestone year for him nonetheless, as we got to see him tackle storyboarding and episode direction on top of his usual animation duties. I became aware of Hirotaka Tokuda as a mecha animator who worked on Gundam Build Fighters, but it wasn’t until the first season of Seven Deadly Sins that he caught my eye and began suspecting he penned certain scenes, which I got confirmation of later. And after seeing what he was capable of on Record of Grancrest War, it’s safe to say that he’s become a name to look out for in the future.
Back on Seven Deadly Sins, his work felt like that of someone more used to animating mecha than characters, with the way he drew effects and the usage of stills in particular. Having progressed since then, his work in much more lively now; characters have a bit more mobility to them, and the effects don’t overshadow the rest of the animation. There’s more of a balance between the two aspects, and his character art even makes great use of block shading. Tokuda’s episodes were definitely Grancrest‘s best, to the point that seeing his evolution during the production was the main draw. While things started getting tight as the show progressed, his episodes never lost that sense of ambition, the feeling that the person behind them didn’t let the crumbling schedule make him falter. I’m honestly shocked at how many episodes he took on and all the roles he had to juggle, so I’d love to see him tackle a project with a healthier schedule next!
- Best Episode: Hugtto! Precure #16
With his second storyboard ever, and under the supervision of another newbie director like Koji Kawasaki, Kodai Watanabe put together a tremendous episode that showcased the characters’ emotional state at all time. It was supported by his insane animation direction job and his direct contributions to the key animation, but he wasn’t alone; young in-house aces like Shunsuke Okubo, Keisuke “soty” Mori, even guests like Itsuki “miso” Tsuchigami contributed to one of the best episodes in Precure history.
Watanabe showcased a collection of visual quirks that prove how effectively he’s absorbed the skills of Toei directors surrounding him. His usage of shadows to express boundaries of characters’ status and emotions brings to mind that of Akifumi Zako, his framing and composition sensibilities are similar to Yuta Tanaka and Haruka Kamatani‘s, even the flow of gags and comedic tempo in general show interesting influence by Yutaka Tsuchida.
- Best Show: —
- Best Movie: Doraemon the Movie: Nobita’s Treasure Island
Perhaps the best piece of pure animation joy I experienced this year came in the form of Doraemon the Movie: Nobita’s Treasure Island. Yoshimichi Kameda’s approach to exaggeration in character animation is so expressive, so joyful, so emotional; just look at this scene and pay attention to everyone’s expressions, the body language, their subtle movement but also their extravagant motion. And that’s not cherrypicking: the movie is full of scenes like this, delivering a fun adventure narrative full of joy and sorrow.
- Best Opening, Ending, Or Music Video: —
- Best Composite: Liz and the Blue Bird
Two worlds: a fairytale with vivid, bright, and colorful environments, and the real world with its cold, bluish tones, conveying the emotional state of Mizore and her unexpressed feelings. While the two settings are differentiated via choices of color design, contrasting design and animation philosophies, plus the distinct art direction of each world, the composite provided the final touch in establishing their identity; it was the photography department that bridged the gap between character art and the backgrounds they inhabited, lighting them up with extraordinary finesse. And it was also them who helped create that illusion of human vision, the camera holding, all those directorial choices that delivered the subtle yet intense emotions of the cast.
- Best Animation Designs: —
- Creator Discovery: Shunsuke Okubo, Dennis Cablao
Very few animators – around 2 to 4 per year – start their career at Toei Animation from the ground up, taking 2 years of in-between training after joining the company. But since the modern precedents for the animators who’ve followed that path have been so positive, there’s immediately a lot of expectations placed in the young artists who stick to this training regime. And the two of them who joined in 2015 turned out to be exceptional; one is the aforementioned Keisuke “soty” Mori, who’s so beloved you don’t need me to introduce him, while the other one is the less known Shunsuke Okubo. He made his key animation debut in 2017, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that we began getting confirmations of his work to judge his skill. In Hugtto! Precure #04, under the wing of Kodai Watanabe, he showed his skill both in mundane daily life moments and action-oriented scenes. He tends to add some looseness to character movements, and also uses simple and flat effect shapes embody the influence Watanabe and the studio’s current generation had on him.
The other name I want to highlight is Dennis Cablao, a young animator from Toei Phils, a subsidiary company that handles around 70% of the main studio’s animation work past the key animation stage. They’re always under pressure because of the parent studio’s demands, and due to a lacking of pool of talent and excessive workload, it’s rare that we can see a young talent shining. But now, 5 years after Cablao joined the studio, he’s grown to the point where his skill leaks through the limitations, earning him a positive reputation. His animation relies on a large number of motion lines, while his action contains sharp-looking smears and thin, long effects. His timing might be a bit on the rigid since, but he’s still got time to develop further – and he’s already shown the ability to improve.
- Best Episode: SSSS.GRIDMAN #09
It’s not a base requirement that a storyboard must be intrinsically linked to an episode’s narrative; sometimes it’s okay for things to look cool because they look cool. But when a board embraces the intent of its script, and carefully considers its themes, it goes to show that powerful visual storytelling is just as important as the words that flow from characters’ mouths. Nowhere is this truer than in SSSS.GRIDMAN’s ninth episode: a textbook example of how framing, symbolism, and lighting and colour are some of the most impressive tools in a filmmaker’s arsenal.
I hesitate to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling such a monumental show, but with themes of loneliness and isolation in mind, I imagine the overwhelming sense of separation in these screenshots alone speak for themselves. Although it shouldn’t be surprising as Kai Ikarashi is already a well-established and immensely talented animator, the idea that this is his debut storyboard is just absurd. It is a real triumph, and easily the best episode this year has to offer.
Runner-up: Boruto #65
- Best Show: SSSS.GRIDMAN
I am not the least bit into tokusatsu, and as far as mecha goes, I’m very much the definition of a “Gainax Baby” that genre maniacs would poke fun at. I’m not sure what possessed me to even give SSSS.GRIDMAN a chance, but I’m beyond ecstatic that I did. This is far and away Trigger’s strongest effort, and a genuine throwback to the golden era of Gainax. The show is series director Akira Amemiya’s love letter to Hideaki Anno, and it’s impossible not to notice the countless references to his magnum opus, Neon Genesis Evangelion; grandiose, exceptionally camp battle sequences, packed to the brim with overt homages to Masami Obari should not work so seamlessly with the quiet, deeply introspective and thematically-heavy scenes that make up the rest of the show… yet they function in perfect harmony. It’s a balance that’s not easy to execute – one sway in the wrong the direction and things comes crumbling down.
SSSS.GRIDMAN never once falters, and in spite of its many callbacks to iconic works over the years, it stands strongly on its own as one of the most resonant efforts this industry has seen in the past decade. My only hope is that its surface-level niche appearance doesn’t turn too many away.
- Best Movie: Liz and the Blue Bird
While I appreciated the technical aspects of Liz and the Blue Bird in my initial viewing, the film left me feeling a little cold. With the intense melodrama of Hibike! Euphonium and A Silent Voice in my mind, I walked into Liz expecting a similar emotional gut-punch, with a dash of Naoko Yamada on top. What I got was a subdued, thoughtful, melancholic film that makes no efforts to feel larger than life. It’s not interested in lingering on extraneous context, or emotionally-manipulative music placement; its strengths are in its ability to say so much with so little, and if like me, your expectations are skewed towards overt grandiosity, you may experience similar disconcertment.
One rewatch later and things clicked into place: this film is phenomenal. Yamada takes a straightforward tale about two friends at a fork in their lives, and strips it down to its bare essentials, contrasting it with a Miyazaki-esque fairy-tale depiction, and framing it in a subtle, but so perfectly executed manner that the film could get away with no dialogue whatsoever. It’s not a violent emotional gut-punch, it’s a chisel that slowly chips away at your heart before breaking it in two.
Yamada’s come a long way since K-On!, and Liz feels like a defining moment for her. While it won’t come close to the popularity of A Silent Voice due to its subdued subject matter, it’s very much the type of work I hope she continues to make in the future.
Runner-up: Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms
- Best Opening, Ending, Or Music Video: Blade Smash Opening (link)
Shingo Yamashita is my favourite animator of all time, and as a result, I was selfishly pretty sad to see him move into directorial duties. He’s making it pretty easy for me to forgive him though, and his directorial efforts on Blade Smash’s opening this year are the perfect apology. Bringing together an impressive team of webgen extraordinaires, and throwing them at his expertly choreographed storyboard is pretty much a guaranteed success. His large-scale set pieces, with a huge emphasis on 3D camerawork are just a delight to watch, and with the majority of animators working digitally, his creative post-processing ideas work their way into each cut seamlessly.
It is beautiful stuff, and a cruel tease as he desperately tries to gather funding for his future original projects!
Runner-up: Baby I Love You da ze (link)
- Best Composite: Liz and the Blue Bird
Realistic photography is seldom found in anime, with many shows opting for composites that often don’t account for the limitations of camera exposure. For example, it’s common to see a character sat indoors on a bright day, with both the interior and exterior exposed identically – or if it is there, then the spill lighting fails to affect the environment in a meaningful way. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, and in fact it lends itself well to the less grounded shows out there.
Kazuya Takao’s long been a proponent of utilising the limitations of real-world photography to create interesting compositions, and that remains strong in Liz and the Blue Bird. Its opening scenes showcase blindingly bright exteriors to match the dimly lit interiors, with light bouncing around off objects within the world, creating bright spots of exposure or moody hues. One of the best examples of this is a transition in focus and exposure from the outside to the interior, with the camera seamlessly adjusting. It’s a stark contrast to the flatter compositions of the fairy tale world, and does a great job of separating their visual identity beyond the obvious stylistic differences in the art.
Similarly, Takao seems 100% in-tune with Naoko Yamada’s love of people-watching, emphasising her focus on characters’ small emotions with intensely shallow depth of field. It’s a not-so-subtle way of manipulating the audience’s viewpoint, but it works wonders. There’s faint chromatic aberration on the edges of wide-angle shots; there’s dynamic exposure, and lovely depth of field transitions – everything about it is just terrific, and it’s just another of the many components of Liz’s production working in perfect harmony.
- Best Animation Designs: Dragon Ball Super: Broly
Realistically, I would like to give this to Hinamatsuri, Liz and the Blue Bird, or SSSS.GRIDMAN, but I’d be remiss not to spend time talking about my darling franchise and the major design overhaul it saw this year. After 25 years under the thumb of Tadayoshi Yamamuro, Dragon Ball has finally been blessed with a competent character designer in the form of Toei superstar, Naohiro Shintani.
Gone are the plastic toys with their awkward articulated joints, instead replaced by loosely detailed, manga-inspired figures, with the liveliest of expressions. Handpicked by Akira Toriyama, and near-universally praised by the fanbase, Shintani has successfully breathed new life into the series’ visuals, with their debut in Dragon Ball Super: Broly playing a large part in making it the best looking film in the franchise’s lengthy history. With a follow-up series seeming inevitable given its earnings, I just hope this change is here to stay!
- Creator Discovery: Weilin Zhang
Boruto #65, otherwise known as Chengxi Huang & His Magical Internet Friends, introduced me to Weilin Zhang, who animated the episode’s standout scene. To make a major mark in a stacked episode like this is no easy feat, but his emphasis on hand-to-hand combat moving effortlessly in 3D space stood out as some of the finest cuts on offer. Looking back at his work on personal projects, it’s clear to see this is no exception for him; he’s been doing this stuff for years! While he prefers his specific age to be kept under wraps, I will say that as a 25-year-old writing this, learning how talented he is at his young age left me wondering what exactly I’ve done with my life so far.
With several high-profile anime appearances coming up in 2019, I expect Zhang to make a real dent in the industry. If he’s not a household name by 2020, I will be exceptionally surprised.
And that’s it for yet another edition of our yearly animation recap! This time around we made a special effort to reach out to different communities around the world; sakugabooru has always been the product of the passion of animation fans and artists all over the globe, but since the Sakuga Blog is almost entirely written in English (don’t tell anyone that none of the regular writers are native speakers, though!), translating that diversity of points of view into this site is tricky. Not all our plans panned out as expected, since a renowned friend of ours from the Japanese animation community was forced to decline in the end because he was too busy with work, but otherwise I feel like we’ve done a decent job at collecting the impressions of animation fans with different priorities and experiences with the medium. Some of my favorite entries this year dig into the personal and cultural reasons why certain pieces of animation resonated with them so strongly, which is something we can always use more of.
Despite all that effort to provide a diversity of opinions, though, we had one title sweeping the awards more overwhelmingly than we’d ever seen. The categories focused on smaller aspects are inherently more prone to varied answers, and I believe that 2018 didn’t have a clear stand-out TV shows for something to dominate in that regard – Yama no Susume‘s third receiving the most nominations but not by a massive margin is unsurprising, since it was a sequel to a niche series but it gathered enough high profile creators with the ability to express their individual styles to tick the fancy of many animation maniacs. But when it comes to the rest of categories, Liz and the Blue Bird dominated to such a ridiculous degree that it has more nominations than writers were invited; it took most votes in the movie category – to my surprise, as I expected Maquia to prevail – and since it was a strong candidate for best animation designs and composite, it made multiple appearances in a handful of lists. As someone who adored the movie I won’t be complaining, and I’m glad that people got to express different feelings on the production despite its omnipresence in the ballots.
This is more than long enough as it is already, so much so that we’re already considering splitting next year’s awards into per-category posts for a full week of more manageable celebration of animation. Perhaps we’ll get to rethink the categories as well! This time around we got rid of the best character animation one that we introduced last year, since 2018 already trended in that direction so it didn’t feel necessary to protect acting pieces over the usually more popular action; truth to be told, you should be glad we made that decision, otherwise Liz would have dominated even harder somehow. If we do change the format altogether though, it would make sense to update the categories so that they fit the new approach – feel free to leave any recommendations in this regard, and as usual, go ahead and share your own nominations if you want as well.
I hope 2018 treated you well, and here’s to a good 2019 – animation-wise and in general!