Let’s have a long look at the production of the first few episodes of Kaguya-sama: Love is War, to find out more about the team behind it but especially to explore the mentality behind the adaptation – faithful yet inventive, and inspired enough to surpass its limitations!
─ On a surface level, Kaguya-sama: Love is War might seem like an altogether conservative effort. The TV show sticks comfortably close to the source material, unlike those transformative reinterpretations we praise the ambition of. That material is, in and of itself, not fundamentally different from many other romantic comedies either. And as a production, it’s also far from the lavish productions we tend to talk about in this site – to the surprise of no one… including the team behind it, as they seem to have made peace with the fact that neither the studio nor producers ever consider their projects big enough of a deal, meaning they’re never allocated the time, resources, and qualified manpower to stand toe to toe with CloverWork’s highest profile titles. This is all to say that Kaguya-sama had every ingredient to be a middle of the road series, and yet the result’s so inspired that it’s understandably eclipsing many other seasonal offerings. And that’s why we’re here, to find out why!
─ I said why, but to a large degree, it’s the who that’s making a difference. Series director Mamoru Hatakeyama‘s been a fan favorite before people even knew him by that name; as Shinichi Omata, his ornate storyboards and distinctly staged approach to direction left a strong impression on viewers, who couldn’t help but be mesmerized by episodes that felt like fancy theatrical performances. That magical touch present in episodes of Hidamari Sketch x ☆☆☆ and Madoka Magica was kept all the same when he left the studio – causing a SHAFT-DEEN exodus in the process – to direct shows like Sankarea and Rozen Maiden (2013). But it was the opportunity to helm the adaptation of Rakugo Shinjuu, a tailor-made series for someone with those theatrical sensibilities, that earned him big critical acclaim. So much so in fact that people seemed to forget something: while Hatakeyama’d peaked with such a poetic title, we’re talking about an individual who was behind the scenes during SHAFT’s wacky comedy era, a director who found his footing on the likes of Natsu no Arashi and Arakawa Under the Bridge. And so, as much as I understand the desire for him to make something more akin to Rakugo, it’s hard to deny that Kaguya-sama speaks the language he’s known for the longest time: ridiculous romcoms.
─ And truth to be told, Kaguya-sama‘s a great entry in the genre to begin with. Though the setup isn’t all that different from many a romcom, what it lacks in originality it makes up for with an outrageous sense of escalation that’s not at odds with the heartfelt turns. The first segment sums up the series well enough, as Hatakeyama effortlessly threads together ideas from the manga while complimenting them with his own to present the main three characters, each more of a dumbass than the last. Kaguya Shinomiya is the heir of a humongous conglomerate, a natural-born genius with more pride than common sense. Miyuki Shirogane is a monstrous workaholic who’s made it to the top in spite of his humble origins, but unfortunately lost any non-academic skills in the process. The two of them share a couple of key traits: being hopelessly in love with each other and refusing to be the ones to confess. And thus their prodigious intellects are put to use to come up with impossible schemes to get the other to voice their affection. To make matters worse (or way better?), the anthropomorphization of chaos Chika Fujiwara is also in the student council to throw wrenches into all their needlessly intricate plans. This creates a clear pattern for the skits, but the nearly infinite ways to spin this central gag keeps things fresh in the long run.
─ Constant surprise factor aside, what makes Kaguya-sama work on a base level is the simple thesis of “boys in love are idiots, girls in love are idiots, but that’s actually cute and fun,” which manages to turn the stalling and misunderstandings that can make romantic comedies frustrating into a hilarious element of its own; we all know where the series is heading to and all meaningful advances in the central relationship still feel like mana from the heavens, but the mindgames they constantly get lost in build up such ridiculous tension that it makes their failures somehow rewarding too. If we’re talking about the anime, though, there’s something that stands out in this first episode perhaps even more than those effective fundamentals: the sheer visual style. Before you have time to fall for these lovable dorks and to notice all the smart details that elevate the series, Kaguya-sama already catches your eye with a myriad of snazzy flourishments. Look no further than the opening sequence, a kaleidoscope of love that’s very much the product of the VFX team (led by studio Graphinica digital artist Eiko Hirayama) that conceptualized it. And the song’s a banger too, for the record.
─ Out of all visual quirks on display, from the usage of negative space to the seamless transitions, the one that’s more integral to the show’s and Hatakeyama’s own identity is the endless stream of stylized shots with neither shadows nor highlights. The aesthetic known as kagenashi – literally without shadow – is hardly a new invention, as it encompasses many styles and applications (including zenkage, shots that achieve the same effect by being fully immersed in shadow) that different creators have relied on for years. Mamoru Hosoda, the most renowned director who champions this aesthetic, justifies his approach thematically: since much of his work features children and is aimed at a younger audience, he wants to present feelings that are as sincere as theirs – nothing should obstruct that clarity in expression, not even shading. In other cases, kagenashi is a visual quirk born from the toolsets; younger digital artists have shown to be big proponents of it, in no small part because it’s a natural extension of the flat effects they’re used to sketching on tablets and that they’ve grown fond of. Hatakeyama lands somewhere in the middle: his kagenashi closeups do serve as intimate, raw snapshots of emotion, but it’s clear that he uses the style very liberally because he thinks it looks nice in the first place. And you know what? So do I!
─ Moving onto the second episode, we find another director worth highlighting. If you’re looking forward to finding out their name, however, I’m afraid to say that so do we. Episode 2’s storyboard was penned under a pseudonym that no one on either side of the pond has managed to crack, which is a shame because they managed to inject even more energy than usual into the series; incidentally, the production’s full of people with obvious pen names, from episode 3’s director to the animator going by Unable To Keep The Deadline on episode 4 – rather fitting since Hatakeyama himself’s worked under multiple names! Our mysterious storyboarder this time understood the appeal of the ridiculous back and forths between the main two characters, so they made the delivery as dramatic as possible via many dolly-like zooms and wild changes of perspectives as the tides in the mindgames turn. Exhilarating to watch, though perhaps a bit too ambitious for the modest animation team that struggled to keep up the polish during those hectic sequences. While that’s a shame, Kaguya-sama‘s achievements only look more impressive when you take into account the limitations of the production.
─ But if you want a polished piece of animation we can attribute a name to, the ending that debuted in the second episode is a great example. I’m not kidding when I say a name either: despite her lack of experience that led to a bit of assistance by more veteran staff, the sequence was directed, storyboarded, and fully key animated by young A-1/CloverWorks prospect Nichika Ono. After training as an in-betweener at the studio, she’s been quickly climbing the ranks at the studio, as seen by this task and her effects supervision on I Want to Eat Your Pancreas. This cute take on Hayao Miyazaki‘s On Your Mark music video is rather fitting as it alludes to a development they could very well end the season on, plus it’s the kind of cheesy romanticism that drives Kaguya’s actions and something Ono herself also loves, as she’s as much into planes as Ghibli’s grump-in-chief. And not only does it show that her animation fundamentals are rock solid, but also that she’s already got interesting ideas regarding expression in general; the noticeable Yoshihiro Sekiya-like treatment of the lineart, quite unlike the look of the show as a whole, is something she brought to the table as well.
─ We’re not kidding anyone, though. When it comes to ending sequences almost singlehandedly animated by one person, it won’t be Ono’s pleasant romantic escapade that people will keep talking about. Instead, it’s Naoya Nakayama‘s special Chikatto Chika Chika dance that’s gone wildly viral, with over 3 million views on the official region locked youtube upload alone. Fans of the source material dig the many easter eggs hidden in Chika’s poses, animation nerds got one of the most impressive major usages of rotoscoping in modern anime, and every other human being has surrendered to the fact that the entire thing is simply too catchy. Though the execution is nearly flawless, we have to start by thanking choreographer Nagisa Sugao. Not only did she come up with a fun dance full of love for the series, she even acted it out herself, wearing a replica of the school’s uniform and a Chika wig to provide the best reference material possible. Now that’s dedication.
─ And as mentioned, the entire sequence was later put together by ex-Kyoto Animation artist Naoya Nakayama, who graduated from the company’s animation course and then became a regular member of their productions in 2013. After 4 years where he earned a reputation of drawing nothing but cute girls, Nakayama went freelance once Maidragon‘s production wrapped up, and has mostly been hanging around the studio now known as CloverWorks. While that meant working on some important productions, Nakayama didn’t hide that he was nervous about tackling a job that put him under the spotlight so clearly. 845 sheets of key animation later – 1,124 drawings once inbetweened – and after such wide acclaim, though, the only feeling he’s got left is satisfaction. Rotoscoping can’t boast of the inherent unpredictability of free-hand animation, but keeping up with the sheer amount of movement and managing to marry Chika’s very anime-like, exaggerated expressions with the realistic core was a massive undertaking, so he’s got every reason to be proud and thankful to the rest of the team.
─ Let’s return to the show itself though, because as charming as they are, it’s not the endings that have delighted the audience. Not just them at any rate. As the episodes advance, one would expect the series director to have less of a hand on each individual episode as deadlines grow tighter. That’s how things usually go, and yet Hatakeyama’s managed to storyboard half the episodes so far and make his omnipresence elsewhere obvious with the widespread kagenashi. The episodes he drew the storyboards for have nothing but utmost respect for the source material, and yet that never neuters his creativity. Infodump panels are constantly transformed into amusing little sequences, while the entire conceit of some skits serves as a way to adorn them and give more personality to the show. Unwavering faithfulness shouldn’t be a decisive factor when judging adaptations – if anything, trying to create exact replicas that don’t take into account medium specificity and have no identity of their own is a shortcut into forgettable works. What Hatakeyama is showing here, however, is that he can grasp the original intent and then boost it with his own voice without having to change everything in the process. Not all thoughtful adaptations have to reinvent the wheel!
─ The extra care that went into this adaptation also manifests itself in some rather amusing ways. For example, episode 4 features Shinobu Yoshioka, a regular animator in the production, in the very important position of Fujiwara Rap Supervision. Now that seems like nothing but a funny behind the scenes anecdote… and it is, but also quite representative of the team’s general attitude. Though there’s only so much a modest animation crew can achieve, they still had someone dedicated to making Chika’s movement during that whole gag as joyful as possible, so I believe that any roughness there is easily forgiven. At the same time, this is also exhibit number three hundred and twenty-seven that all the staff loves Chika a disproportionate amount, which isn’t actually an important factor for the production but that I approve of anyway.
─ If you’re a regular reader of this site, then the idea of hilarious anime that dunks on its characters with the same energy that it hugs them with might bring a certain director to mind. Though it’d always been something he excelled at, after Hinamatsuri we can truly consider this to be Kei Oikawa‘s forte; he won’t hesitate to make his characters suffer the consequences of their comical, often self-inflicted screw-ups, but at the same time he’ll create a warm, familiar place where the cast seems genuinely comfortable – just like the student council in Kaguya-sama. Hatakeyama seems to be keenly aware of Oikawa’s skill as well, since it was an episode with more sweet moments than usual (and also more ridiculous lows for the characters) that he was entrusted with. Even if the modest production limits them somewhat, the smart deployment of the talent they have available and the inspired work the staff responds with are carrying this adaptation to greatness.
─ As much as we’ve been pointing out that the limitations of the animation are a factor that the whole production’s had to dance around, that’s not to say there aren’t some goodies scattered here and there. Episode 5 was lucky to be the first one with Takashi Torii in the position of chief supervisor in the first place. He was a late addition to the team so we shouldn’t expect anything hugely significant from him, but it’s still amusing to see the hand of an action specialist giving a bit of an aggressive edge to a show that’s outside his wheelhouse. But the scene that caught the most attention came from another action animator: Hidekazu Ebina‘s taking a short break from his Fate duties, so he had time to animate Shirogane’s glorious volleyball ineptitude. The impossible cartoony failure is amusing, but I find that what truly sold the scene was Ebina’s decision to animate his recovery on the 3s and 4s – the choppier rhythm makes him look genuinely weary, as if it really took his everything to be so absurdly bad at the sport. Minor as it is, this is yet another detail that shows how well they’ve grasped the material and their ability to convey it through animation. At this point, all we can do is look forward to whatever this team’s got in store next!
Key Animation: Shinobu Nishioka, Gunsou, Yoshio Chizaki, Yusuke Kurinishi, Hidekazu Ebina, Keigo Arihara, Yu Takahashi, Nobuhiro Okazaki, Junichi Saito, Takayuki Kikuchi, Keita Watabe, Masaru Suzuki, Satoshi Umizuka, Rena Kawasaki, Natsumi Ishizaki
Storyboard: 十的一発 (no that’s not a name at all)
Episode Director: Taro Kubo
Chief Animation Director: Hiroshi Yako
Animation Direction: Yoichi Ishikawa, Kazuaki Imoto
Prop Animation Director: Takayuki Kido
Key Animation: Hiroshi Yako, Keisuke Furuichi, Takuro Naka, Junichi Saito, Tomohito Matsuhiro, Yoichi Ishikawa, Kazuaki Imoto, Toshihito Kato, Masato Hagiwara, Yusuke Adachi, Keiko Nagamine, Naoko Ozawa, Midori Yui, Keiji Hanzawa
Storyboard: Mamoru Hatakeyama
Episode Director: Isono
Chief Animation Director: Yuko Hariba
Animation Direction: Yuko Hariba, Natsumi Ishizaki
Assistant Key Animation Supervisor: Mitsuyuki Sasagawa
Prop Animation Director: Takayuki Kido
Key Animation: Yuki Akutagawa, Shuntaro Yamada, Hayato Kakita, Yuko Hariba, Teruaki Tokumaru, Satoshi Fujioka, Moe Suzuki, Natsumi Ishizaki, Daisuke Takemoto, Hiroshi Saito, Yasuhiro Ueno, Kaoru Nagakawa, Yuichiro Komuro, Kaori Henmi, Yuuki Iwai, Takeshi Matsuda
Storyboard: Masakazu Ohara
Episode Director: Masaki Utsunomiya
Chief Animation Director: Hiroshi Yako
Animation Direction: Shuntaro Yamada, Hitoshi Kamata, Yoichi Ishikawa, Rena Kawasaki
Fujiwara Rap Supervisor: Shinobu Nishioka
Prop Animation Director: Takayuki Kido
Key Animation: Eri Shikita, Toru Sawamura, Mao Kawaguchi, Shinichi Wada, Shuntaro Yamada, Hiroyuki Sugawara, Hiroko Shigekuni, Miho Arai, Unable To Keep The Deadline, Junichi Saito, Hiroshi Saito, Takeshi Matsuda, Ayumi Kurokawa, Yumiko Oumae, Rie Ikegami, Yuki Ito, Takuro Naka, Kanako Oyabu
Storyboard: Kei Oikawa
Episode Director: Tsuyoshi Tobita
Chief Animation Director: Takashi Torii
Animation Direction: Kohei Yamazaki, Satoshi Noma, Zenjiro Ukulele
Prop Animation Director: Takayuki Kido
Key Animation: Junko Yoshikai, Ryoko Kawamura, Kohei Yamazaki, Keigo Arihara, Keisuke Furuichi, Hidekazu Ebina, Yukihiro Kobayashi, Satoshi Noma, Takayuki Kikuchi, Nobuhiro Okazaki, Shiori Nagata, Kyoko Sugiyama, Masahiro Furihata
Toshiya Washida, Hanako Kikuchi, Yuki Tamori, Chihiro Saito, Kayoko Kumagai