In an industry where producers push for unreasonable deadlines all the time, we bring you the story of Black Fox: an entertaining action anime that got quietly pushed back and allowed its staff to finish (but did they really?) half a year before its official release. A curious and unusually positive situation worth looking into!
Last week it was announced that studio 3hz’s upcoming anime movie BLACKFOX — let’s go with Black Fox since that’s presumably how it’s being localized — will begin its theatrical run on October 5, 2019. And as it turns out, we had the opportunity to watch it way before that official release, meaning that we can tell you this: it’s not a movie, and honestly, it’s not all of Black Fox either. So let’s recap a story that should be interesting, whether you were interested in the title or you simply want to hear about the unusual behind the scenes happenings that led to this project existing as it does now.
Black Fox was first revealed as 3hz’s next original title in March 2018, in anticipation for Anime-Japan 2018. During the event itself, a teaser trailer with some actual footage of the work was screened and uploaded online. It revealed the main staff led by Kazuya Nomura of Sengoku Basara and Run With the Wind fame, as well as a mix of sci-fi and ninja action. And while it wasn’t directly stated, everything implied it’d be a TV series due in late 2018~early 2019. If you want something less speculative, we can straight up confirm the intended format was TV, to the point that even artists who got in touch with the team many months after this point got assigned work labeled as TV episodes. Even in the final product, the staff is structured as if it were 4 television episodes, which is also the exact length of the alleged movie.
Let’s return to 2018, though. Had things gone as planned, more information about Black Fox would have gradually been revealed over the course of the following months. But instead, it took half a year for anything to be said at all, and when an update did come, it was light to say the least. Most of the footage seen in the second PV was reused from the first teaser, and the story blurb essentially spelled out things you could already infer. The only noteworthy news was the cast… and an important change in the staff that also seemed to imply that things had taken an unexpected turn.
Despite initially being credited everywhere as the director for the project, Nomura’s role switched to a less involved chief direction as of that second update. Instead, Keisuke Shinohara would serve as Black Fox‘s director; quite the heavy role considering that he’d never headed a project before, despite having contributed to a few interesting episodes like Little Witch Academia #3 — directing Masayuki’s exceptional storyboard — and Devilman Crybaby #6. But why make such a big change in the first place? It’s not actually that big of a surprise when you consider that all of this overlapped with Nomura directing the aforementioned Run With the Wind: a fantastic show in all respects, but also one with a very troublesome production schedule that must have spared him no breathing room.
About a year after the original reveal, coinciding with Anime-Japan once again, we got to hear about the solution they’d settled on. Black Fox was now a theatrical anime due fall 2019, accompanied by a live-action spinoff set in the past as opposed to the future adventures of the cartoon — even the anime’s core staff struggled to believe that one. It’s important to note that, while production circumstances like Nomura’s busy schedule were at the core of the problem, these big decisions were taken on an executive level, in a very rare instance where the suits chose the more benevolent route. Used as they are to this industry’s ruthless practices, the staff had assumed the project would carry on as initially planned in spite of the issues that had arisen… only for the deadlines to become comfortably ample, and ultimately result in the lengthy delay and switch to a release format that isn’t beholden to rigid seasonal TV slots. Again, something that not even the main crew knew until the news became public.
Despite having started off on the wrong foot, this project eventually found itself in an enviable position. The extra time given to the team, the relatively generous rates, plus 3hz’s ability to gather exceptional artists allowed everyone to wrap up their job early and content with themselves. Perhaps this industry as a whole will one day realize that better working conditions — in general but more so on creative fields — not only are more humane but also lead to higher efficiency and quality output, as the better-managed anime studios and individual projects demonstrate over and over. In this case, that meant that a fairly high-quality production now slotted for a Fall release wrapped up in Spring. Having to shelve your product for half a year in an industry where right about everything gets finished at the last second is a quality problem to have.
But what is Black Fox exactly? On a surface level, it’s easily recognizable as an Infinite IP: original (though not always original) anime with cute characters everywhere. The story revolves around Rikka Isurugi, the young heir to a ninja clan who’s more inclined to follow in the footsteps of her genius inventor of a father… until her whole family gets murdered, forcing her to take a much darker path. What follows is a ninja-themed revenge film with heavy dashes of science fiction. Taking traditionally masculine stories and making a version starring teenage girls instead is a well-established genre of its own, and while it usually falls short of the genius subversion of Girls und Panzer, it can still lead to fun series like this one or Princess Principal‘s cute steampunk spies. If that’s not usually your thing, Black Fox won’t win you over with refined writing — beware, the villains will make you groan — but maybe something else will: the exceptional action.
Truth to be told, the scope of Black Fox is still very much in the TV production realm. While it’s on the upper end of television-style projects being dumped on the big screen, the level of ambition when creators envision a theatrical project is much higher than when they do it with the usual TV constraints. The thoroughness of the acting, the detail that goes into the setting, and of course the time the staff can dedicate to each scene are simply superior. And yet, Black Fox offers a more than reasonable compromise by going all-out during fighting scenes that don’t feel out of place in a cinema.
During the early stages of the movie, the action stands out for a couple of factors. For starters, the storyboarding is very spatially aware, bringing elements from the environment into the setpieces in a way that really fits the ninja hijinks. This is realized through brilliant choreography work married to layouts that feel spacious even when the fighters are constricted in tight places, making every confrontation into a thrilling ride that’s surprisingly grounded in spite of the ridiculous powers. Rikka comes across as an absurdly cool ninja but not an unbeatable one, so the feeling of threat remains even in lower stake scenarios.
To make things even better, a sizable chunk of this early action was animated by the one and only Ryouma Ebata, who made up for not fully returning to That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime with excellent animation in spades. Though when working on the more realistic — by kind of movement, not content — part of the movie he’s not quite as unrestrained as usual, the enchanting, dance-like flow that has made him one of the most beloved action animators of the moment is very much there. EDIT: I’m a fool and a clown, but the argument about its quality stands.
Ebata wasn’t alone either, as 3hz remains an attractive destination for household sakuga names. We’ve got major webgen figures from various generations like Shingo Yamashita, Shun Enokido, Keiichiro Watanabe, and Isuta, a few noteworthy names from anime’s Korean scene like Azure and Pebble, plus an even more international crew featuring the young animators that gathered in the Zettai Absolute server and often work with Studio LAN — Gem, Hero, Tilfinning, David Bradshaw, and MLANG, just to name a few. This last group’s influence is particularly strong in the final confrontations of the movie, adapting to the change of tone. As the movie progresses and the powers keep escalating, the initial physicality makes way for a flashier parade of superpowers, and ultimately culminates in a transparent homage to Yutaka Nakamura’s modern work. A good one at that, carried on the back of animators who owe lots of inspiration to him in the first place.
Depending on what you value the most in action animation, you might leave the theater with a strong preference for either half of the movie. If you love well-planned choreography with careful body motion and a bit of a tactical edge to it, the early fights were made for you. If you’re into high-octane showcases of effects in the style of arguably the most popular action animator, then the final fight will give you a sample as good as it gets without Nakamura’s own intervention. Either way, Black Fox‘s action is comfortably above what you’d expect from a TV anime, though not quite on the level of the most iconic action movies. A decent summary of the production as a whole, all things considered.
There are a few more aspects that allowed Black Fox to get extra mileage out of what was meant to be a standard TV production. Chief among them is Atsushi Saito‘s charming design and chief supervision work. Hardcore fans of Kyoto Animation might be aware that Saito spent his formative years at the studio, citing Yoshiji Kigami and Tomoe Aratani — arguably the progenitors of KyoAni’s distinct animation philosophy — as major influences of his, and of course absorbing many of Yukiko Horiguchi’s cartoony quirks even as he was on his way out. Though he has been freelancing for nearly a decade at this point, his precepts have remained more or less the same. Mindfulness of mannerisms to create the illusion that his characters have a soul, preservation of the inherent fun of animation so watching them act is enjoyable, and a versatility that’s allowed him to act as the main animator in multiple high profile titles with different needs, and even handle full episodes by himself.
And as it turns out, those qualities fit Black Fox to a T. The limitations of the production and focus on the action sequences wouldn’t have allowed the team to articulate the characters’ behavior in a more traditional way, but Saito’s guidance allowed them to take shortcuts so effective they actually become highlights of their own — I wouldn’t fault a piece of animation for not filling every intermediate emotion between A and B if both extremes were so cute they left an impression. Saito’s expression work is reminiscent of artists like Yuusuke Matsuo and Toshifumi Akai with similar backgrounds and influences, but most importantly, they’re absolutely adorable. While the character writing is thinner than you might like here and there, Saito’s sheets are so full of charming expressions that it’s hard not to grow fond of the main characters. It’s honestly hard to believe this was Saito’s first gig as fully fledged character designer.
Though not my virtual youtuber of choice, I’m contractually obligated to share Saito’s recent clip commissioned by Kizuna Ai.
We’ve gone over the curious production circumstances and the not-quite-a-movie that resulted out of them for long enough to give you a clear enough picture of what Black Fox is like. You know you’re in for a tasty fast food meal served on a fancy plate; akin to an enjoyable seasonal anime but with well above average action setpieces, and with a few more tricks up its sleeve that let it get away with a theatrical release. Is that all there is, then? Well, no.
Without going into spoilers, Black Fox ends in the middle — if that — of a story. Saying its ending is a sequel hook would be way too generous, when in truth it’s a 4 episodes arc in what was meant to be at least a 1 cours TV show. One of the main characters, or to be more precise their actual identity, only appears for a few seconds around the end. The very last shot is part footage that comprised the early teasers, to give you an idea of how strongly this first entry ends with a this is just the beginning tone. The main villain is still on the loose so to see the real conclusion we’ll have to wait… an indeterminate amount of time? Though they’ve finished this first half so early that there’s no reason to worry yet, it’s worth noting that the production doesn’t seem to be moving forward as of now.
If they’re simply ironing out pre-production matters, then Black Fox might remain a good example of why anime delays and format changes that remove pressure on the staff are a positive move. If they’re instead awaiting the reception to greenlit the follow-up, then we’ll have another instance of dubious management in this industry. Either way, we’ll keep an eye on it!