Sarazanmai marks the return of Kunihiko Ikuhara, one of anime’s most brilliant and socially conscious directors. While it’s still too early to unravel his many playful mysteries, we had to take our time to detail his team’s unique directorial approach and address some deeply rooted misunderstandings about the production.
Storyboard: Kunihiko Ikuhara, Nobuyuki Takeuchi, Katsunori Shibata, Maimu Matsushima
Episode Direction: Masato Jinbo
Chief Animation Director: Kayoko Ishikawa, Tomomi Kawatsuma
Animation Direction: Kayoko Ishikawa, Ayumi Nishihata, Yayoi Takano, Yumi Kobayashi
Main Animator: Yayoi Takano, Mayu Gushiken
Key Animation: Nobuyuki Takeuchi, Maimu Matsushima, Ayumi Nishihata, Katsunori Shibata, Tomomi Kawatsuma, Yayoi Takano, Shoushi Ishikawa, Yukari Takano, Tomoki Kouda, Tetsuya Hasegawa, Aiba Kawasaki, Miho Nagisa, Naoto Abe, Komami Yoshida, Mamiko Matsumoto, Kazunori Ozawa, Masakazu Okada, Hiroshi Yoneda
There are few events in the anime world that I find as exciting as an Ikuhara premiere, and there are few Ikuhara premieres that match Sarazanmai‘s intensity. His ability to abstract societal problems and construct a cartoon fable that gets to the heart of the issue is unquestionable, but it’s also hard to deny that his career as a director has been one of compromise. And that, for someone as invested in his vision as Ikuhara is, tends to spell trouble. It was his refusal to budge from his position that led to his departure from Toei Animation, abandoning Sailor Moon in the process. That same resolution – plus Utena royalties and side projects, man’s gotta eat – kept him away from the industry for well over a decade until he was able to tell the story he wanted. Mawaru Penguindrum clearly dropped entire character arcs and narrative threads… and yet the trimming wasn’t clean, leaving remnants of older ideas there that feel soaked in Ikuhara’s unwillingness to discard them. Even Utena, which feels like a miraculous project, took all of Be-PaPas to become the timeless masterpiece that it is.
The most bitter tale of Ikuhara grappling with external circumstances to realize his vision was his latest TV anime, Yurikuma Arashi. For someone sometimes criticized for being too inscrutable, his shows had always been a joy to follow on a moment-to-moment basis; regardless of the abstraction of his messages and cryptic imagery, Ikuhara’s a very funny director with the ability to blast the character’s feelings in a stunning way, making his anime similar to a song you can get a lot of enjoyment of even if you don’t know whichever language the lyrics are written in. As his first 1 cours series, however, Yurikuma Arashi had to strip a lot of the personality that characterized his works – save for the furry ball of charisma that was Lulu – to reserve the runtime for the message he was exposing.
And when it comes to the content that did make it into the final cut, other limitations got in the way. Unfortunate timing and yet another studio change prevented Ikuhara from reaching out to many of his talented acquaintances, so the production felt like it operated with handbrakes on. As far as I’m concerned, Yurikuma‘s powerful ending ultimately justified the team’s decisions, but I’m still glad to report that Sarazanmai‘s energy is at least an order of magnitude higher. Sure, it’s still up in the air whether Ikuhara will be able to adapt to 11 episodes in an elegant way. We also don’t know whether the team will be able to keep up with this kind of exuberant delivery the entire way through, regardless of positive hints about its schedule. And yet here I am, celebrating that first episode, because experiencing Ikuhara with all limiters off isn’t something we can take for granted.
That’s enough vague celebration of Sarazanmai though, so let’s look at this first episode. If you’re currently wondering the exact implications of the events that unfolded, what they all meant in the grand scheme of things, then let me tell you that so is everyone else – including the people who worked on the show. Ikuhara’s inscrutable nature sometimes is exaggerated, especially when it comes to a project like Sarazanmai that’s presented its themes fairly openly before the broadcast started, but if anyone proclaims to have a clear picture of the show after that premiere, they’re either a time-traveler or Ikuni himself under a disguise.
I’ve got my own theories, from thematic implications to smaller details (the perhaps deliberate changes to a certain outfit, the way in which unreliable narration was used, and so on) that I’m dying to be wrong about, but I feel like the field needs to even out first before we start talking about this. There’s information about the first three episodes from back in the prescreen that not everyone is privy to, plus a key staff member recently commented that you should probably watch the first 4 episodes of the show to get Sarazanmai‘s essence at all, so I’ll refrain from going too heavy on the speculation for now.
Instead, let me focus on the way the team behind Sarazanmai are shaping Ikuhara’s (and their own) ideas into such a thrilling experience. Long story short, this production is just as cryptic as the narrative. Thanks, Ikuhara.
You’re likely aware of how storyboards function in anime. A written script, which ranges from vague annotations accompanying the dialogue to more precise instructions, is given visual form via small panels that depict every shot and variations within them. They also include notes regarding the execution, hence why many believe the optimal production procedure is allowing the artist who drew them to also act as the episode director who supervises the process to bring to life all the ideas the storyboard introduced. By having a single person envision the episode, you ensure consistency and let those rough ideas flourish exactly as they were meant to. Since there’s no one true way to create art, though, there are teams who split storyboarding and direction, even those that regularly split episodes into two halves to quickly pump out episodes.
And then there’s Ikuhara, whose first episode was storyboarded by the production’s four main directorial forces. Not because they were running out of time (the cause behind most instances of storyboarding getting split into small chunks) but out of their own volition. Ikuhara’s post-Utena approach to making anime is unique to say the least, and it feels like the culmination of the insidiousness he always had as a director; if you’re still wondering why some people stick with him for decades while others collaborate once and then run in the opposite direction, it’s because Ikuhara’s a very particular creator who wants a hand in everything, which is either a fascinating experience or actual torture depending on how strongly their works resonate with you. Nowadays you see him co-writing the entirety of his shows, storyboarding bits and pieces all the way through, and handing other chunks to his trustworthy core team on an almost weekly basis. Whereas most series directors try to grant their subordinates control of whole episodes to ensure internal consistency, Ikuhara’s unifying factor is… himself, spread all over his works.
While that unusual approach does fulfill its job to maintain the identity of Ikuhara’s works, I’d like to note that it doesn’t mean you can’t notice the individual traits of the other directors involved. I’ve been pointing out that the gorgeously animated introduction had the unmistakable flavor of Nobuyuki Takeuchi – whom we’ve introduced a couple of times already – and there he was in the episode credits, not just as a storyboarder but as the top key animator as well. Loose acting expert and Ikuhara pupil Katsunori Shibata made an equally grand appearance: handling the opening sequence alongside his mentor, while also animating and presumably boarding the ritual stock footage in all its 2DFX glory. Incidentally, I love being unable to tell the true extent of Sarazanmai‘s stock footage due to the simple fact that Ikuhara still directs many sequences (the extraction, the trip within the Field of Desires, the musical) as if they were material to be reused weekly on a kids anime. You can remove Ikuhara from Toei Animation, but you can never remove Toei Animation from Ikuhara.
And speaking of the devil, Ikuhara himself seems to have storyboarded most of the standard portions of the episode… though in his hands, they’re anything but that. Though the events that everyone is (rightfully) screaming about happen in the outright fantastical Field of Desires, I’d argue that the craziest part of the episode is Kazuki and Toi coming into terms with the fact that they’ve been turned into kappa; the outrageously fast tempo, the nonchalant surreal gags that show their newly acquired quirks, plus the world’s most stylish anal extraction sequence are pure Ikuhara to a degree I hadn’t seen in a long time. Being known as a rebellious director who fights to convince disenfranchised viewers that their struggle is worth it is a great thing, of course, but again, don’t let that obscure another important point: Ikuhara’s a hilarious weirdo.
The last artist involved in that storyboarding process was Maimu Matsushima, whom we mentioned in the season preview as the latest case of Ikuhara mentoring an artist entirely new to the directorial field, out of the blue. Despite having no experience beyond key animation and a side job of illustration, Matsushima’s been appointed as assistant series director and had the heavy responsibility of contributing to the premiere’s storyboards; considering that the aforementioned Shibata was in a very similar position in Mawaru Penguindrum, it’s again easy to tell how comfortable Ikuhara’s grown with this unconventional approach that lets him mold new prospects to his liking. And as ominous as that might sound, it’s proven to be mutually beneficial! Now it’s obviously still too early to judge Matsushima’s work, but I look forward to seeing her handle increasingly larger portions of the show and her growth beyond this project.
As an aside, I’d like to mention something about Matsushima’s career that might not be immediately obvious if fans look her up on the anime staff database of their choices. And that’s because if they do, it’ll seem as if she appeared out of nowhere as an almost fully fledged animator after studio Ordet’s creation. Considering the fact that she’s from Osaka and the suspicious timing, I’m confident she was part of the large exodus that occurred in Kyoto Animation’s Do branch during the late 00s, after which point she might have assumed a new professional name – a common practice when people in this industry break their ties to a company they were devoted to full-time.
To sustain that theory, all you have to do is examine her career in the following years. Once she began distancing herself from a certain director who shall remain nameless – as essentially everyone who’s worked with him did – Matsushima could be found collaborating with ex-KyoAni staff members regularly, even those totally unrelated to Ordet; Noriko Takao‘s work in The [email protected], episodes fully outsourced to Liden Films in the hands of various ex-employees of the studio, and plenty more instances that can hardly be written off as coincidences in an industry where personal connections determine everything. I’m not certain what led to Ikuhara & co scouting her (perhaps one of the Lapintrack episodes of Yurikuma Arashi that she lent key animation for?) but regardless of that, she should have great animation fundamentals and the kind of mentality you get by training in a studio that asks for directorial ambition out of their new animators as well. Here’s hoping that prepared her to work with one of anime’s wildest creators!
We’ve been stressing out the cryptic nature of Ikuhara’s delivery, but this time around one of the biggest sources of confusion is the authorship of the production itself, so we should address that as soon as possible. Don’t get me wrong, it’s easy to understand why MAPPA’s getting all the credit for Sarazanmai; they leaked the existence of a new Ikuhara project in the first place, the studio is much larger and more recognizable than the other company involved, plus they happen – the keyword is happen – to have produced some massive hits like Yuri on Ice that stand as new landmarks of representation in anime. With that in mind, surely they must be the ones to thank for this new Ikuhara series with aspirations to become another incisive dive into our society, right? Well, the answer’s going to range from “not quite” to “absolutely not.”
The overlooked key player here is studio Lapintrack, Ikuhara’s new home in the anime industry. To understand where they come from, we’ve got to turn our heads back to the beginning of the decade. After a long yet sorta distant relationship with JC Staff, Ikuhara’s desire to turn all the ideas he’d been ruminating about into a TV show brought him to Brains Base, a studio that had quite the exceptional lineup of talent at their disposal at the time. The result couldn’t have been better: Mawaru Penguindrum, his first major anime project after 12 years, was a resounding success in no small part thanks to a crew that included old acquaintances and new prospects the studio managed to gather. However, few things are as volatile as the anime industry, so that creative utopia began falling apart when different individuals embarked on their own adventures. The company’s operating fine to this day, even keeping some of their notable directors like Keiji Gotoh, but the departure of various key creative and management staff changed the studio in a very tangible way.
And that meant that if Ikuhara intended to surround himself with people who understood his needs as well as Penguindrum‘s team did, he’d have to find a new crew… or would he? Founded in 2014 by ex-Brains Base production members, it’s no exaggeration to say that Lapintrack exists for Ikuhara’s sake. While they do some outsourcing work on the side to keep themselves afloat, their only two big projects to date have been Yurikuma Arashi and Sarazanmai; during the former, they were credited for production assistance and handled the whole process for 5 epsiodes, while for the latter they’ve moved up to a co-production position and are bound to play an even larger role overall. Despite being a tiny company – 7 full-time employees before their recruitment – they’ve quickly become an integral part of Ikuhara’s creative process.
The ending of the sequence that takes the main trio to the bridge in the Field of Desires is a diorama built by Lapintrack’s Teruko Utsumi, writer of the show alongside Ikuhara and seemingly multitalented creator.
If you’re not interested in behind the scenes events beyond the immediate effect they have on the media you consume, you might be tempted to write all that off as trivia and keep thinking of Sarazanmai as MAPPA’s work. After all, what are the actual consequences of a small studio’s involvement? So far, sort of everything. Both the opening and ending were produced at Lapintrack, and that appears to be the same for episode #01 as well; though it’s not 100% confirmed because both managers are newcomers, the staff list leaves no doubt as to which of the two studios handled the making of the premiere. Since the next episode will be directed and storyboarded by one of Ikuhara’s closest buddies, chances are that it’ll have been produced at Lapintrack as well, as that’s where his acquaintances are actually gathering.
And when it comes to high-level creative decisions, it’s impossible to ignore Teruko Utsumi‘s role as Ikuhara’s right-hand woman for this project. After working as a production assistant at Brains Base and slowly inching towards writing via literature management duties, she didn’t hesitate to join in on Lapintrack’s independent adventure. And just a few years later, she’s already the studio’s representative and a trustworthy ally for Ikuhara. Utsumi is acting as Sarazanmai‘s co-series composer and scriptwriter alongside him, all while doing tasks that range from writing the lyrics for the narrative and thematically relevant insert songs to model-building. If that’s not a successful wager, I don’t know what is.
This is all to say that, even though I don’t recommend attributing the creative process to studios over individuals, you’d at least be much closer to reality if you credited Lapintrack for Sarazanmai‘s brilliance. MAPPA’s turn will come, and chances are that they’ll end up producing around a handful of episodes as well, but it seems pretty backwards to praise them for another crew’s ideas and (so far all) manufacturing efforts. Don’t take this as an attack if you’ve been under the impression that MAPPA were calling the shots, though – if anything, it’s lazy marketing and outlets that should know any better than keep giving people the wrong impression about how things actually work.
With that bit of mythbusting over, we’re finally done with a long post that didn’t actually cover the events of the episode all that much. If you’re displeased about that, please forward your complaints to Ikuhara… or actually don’t, because people keep harassing anime directors for real, to the point of making me question my attempts to bridge the gaps between creators and fans. Enough downers though, Sarazanmai‘s a joyous show that deserves better. See you next time!