You know what time is it: our lengthy summer 2019 anime preview examining all the new shows that have gathered exceptional creators, the ones that have allowed interesting ideas to meet capable teams, and those that have simply caught our eye for some reason or the other.
Fire Force (PV)
Director: Yuuki Yase
Character Designer, Chief Animation Director: Hideyuki Morioka
Assistant Designer, Chief Animation Director: Yoshio Kozakai
Ace Animator: Kazuhiro Miwa
Main Animator: Hiroyuki Ookaji, Riki Matsuura
Kevin: If there’s one summer title that’s managed to wow viewers before the broadcast even starts, that’s got to be Fire Force. Atsushi Ohkubo’s works continue to be blessed – don’t say the words Soul Eater Not! in this household – with productions that go above and beyond action anime standards, which is quite impressive considering they also keep receiving a sizable number of episodes. David Production’s take on Ohkubo’s (literal) firefighting series is shaping up to be an animation effort that can at least pick up Soul Eater’s baton without shame, and that means many people have a fair question: how the hell are they managing that?
As it turns out, the answer was long enough that we had to dedicate it an article of its own – if you’re at all interested in Fire Force, or simply curious about the exceptional quality we’ve been seeing in the teasers, I encourage you to read this in full. To sum things up, though, it’s the combination of David Production’s newfound efficiency, upper management willing to allocate extra time for the project, and a massive influx of creators from studio SHAFT taking refuge in a project where their limiters can be safely removed. The result is as you can see: a stunning showcase of effects animation so diverse in aesthetics that you could forget it’s all themed around fire, breakneck paced action, and a lively steampunk-esque setting. So far, so good. Excellent, even.
The one thing holding me back from an even more enthusiastic recommendation is that the source material’s writing wasn’t quite as inspired as its visuals to begin with. The overarching mystery narrative was exactly compelling enough to keep me reading and it did lead to entertaining fights that should be quite the spectacle in the anime, but without the support of a cast as charismatic as Soul Eater‘s and suffering from awkward tonal whiplash on the regular, it was hard to feel truly passionate about the series. Considering how the anime’s team have managed to take the visuals to a new level, though, why not believe that they could improve other aspects as well?
liborek: It’s not every season that we get an anime with a scope as grandiose as Vinland Saga‘s. Its story draws elements from various medieval Icelandic texts, obviously borrowing the concept of Vinland from the Norse sagas, as a means to ground Makoto Yukimura‘s fictional events in a setting that feels authentic. It’s set in the early 11th century, following fictionalized versions of numerous historical figures amidst a fight for the throne of England and constant Danish – which is to say, viking – invasions and pillaging. The protagonist Thorfinn, inspired by a historical explorer, is a ferocious young man whose quest to avenge his father takes him through a multitude of locations and influential events in European history.
If adapting this story sounds like an ambitious task, it’s because it is. One of the most overlooked, arduous tasks when it comes to animated storytelling is the design work: not the character’s, but the setting. In a story like this with constantly changing locations, different cultures, and even precise historical locations to recreate, the number of reference sheets and artboards required to do a satisfactory job is unbelievable. Mind you, the opposite isn’t necessarily true – there are anime set within one single room with more effort put into authentic props, clothing, and subtle changes in the surroundings than less inspired epic adventures get, but the point here is that nailing Vinland Saga‘s setting will take a tremendous amount of work. Fortunately, art director Yusuke Takeda and his crew at studio BAMBOO happen to be among the best digital background art teams in the TV anime space; I could imagine more traditionally oriented crews doing an exceptional job with its broad setting, but there’s so much work to do that I wouldn’t fault anyone for choosing a more efficient yet still trustworthy team.
To raise that bar even higher, Yukimura’s stunning drawings also happen to focus on plenty of elements that hand-drawn anime often struggles to depict; sprawling uncoordinated crowds during battles, large solid structures like boats, and the constant waves rocking them about. The dream of all fans would be to assemble a theatrical production level team who could handle that workload… but we’re in the real world, and studio WIT has decided on a more pragmatic solution to all that trouble. Director Shuhei Yabuta has spent most of his time in this industry as a CG animator and 3D director on projects like Attack on Titan (the first two seasons), meaning that he’s got exactly the kind of experience you’d need to tackle this project from the angle WIT have chosen to. Having a proficient CG artist on the director’s seat might prove to be one of the greatest assets for the production… and also the source of some unavoidable pitfalls. If you’re looking for a traditional experience, this may not be your show.
Leaving aside all those grand scale elements, though, there’s yet another tricky element to adapt: the crudeness of war. It’s not as if Vinland Saga is nothing but nasty fights, but there’s no denying that Yukimura’s horrific illustrations of war are integral to the visceral experience, and CG with poor tactility isn’t going to help with that. To handle that, ex-Madhouse (later affiliated to studio VOLN) ace animator Takahiko Abiru was recruited as character designer to provide an excellent approximation to Yukimura’s art that still works within an animated canvas. Abiru made his name known after supervising countless Hunter x Hunter (2011) episodes, where his emphasis on detailed facial expressions and sturdy human body form made him shine as one of the team’s best animation directors. Incidentally, you might already be acquainted with him without having noticed – yes, he’s that person who posts stunning illustrations on Twitter.
Adding onto this optimistic outlook we’ve settled on, it’s worth noting that the production appears to be well planned; it’s no secret that this has been WIT’s focus for quite a while, and the reasonable schedule at least ensures that there won’t be noticeable quality dips during the first cours. Whether they’ll be able to maintain that healthy buffer (unlike a certain title about a girl and a nice skull lad), and whether Yabuta’s 3D-heavy approach to Vinland Saga can highlight the qualities of the series while also taking some advantages of the new medium, still remains to be seen. The right ingredients are there, so we’ll see if this team’s recipe leads to a meal as grandiose as Vinland Saga is meant to be.
Kevin: Out of the two studio Lerche shows due this season, I get the feeling that Astra Lost in Space is bound to receive the most attention. The source material is a lowkey fan favorite, and director Masaomi Ando plus designer Keiko Kurosawa – the duo behind Scum’s Wish and Gakkou Gurashi – are the studio’s most trusted team. But instead, their other adaptation by kind of a newbie director that has really caught my attention.
This new noitaminA offering is a story about music as a means of communication, as a bonding device, and also as a coping mechanism. Not exactly new themes, but the way it allows a group of messy teenagers to get rid of stagnant regrets through musical performances so that they can move on is as cathartic as it gets. That’s quite the emotionally charged work for Hikaru Yamaguchi to make her TV anime director debut, but considering that she was trained within Aikatsu’s team, I’m more than willing to trust her; there’s a proven record of creators maturing among that crew turning out to excel on their fields, but most importantly, my unashamed bias for the franchise blinds me. I mean, who can say no to the person who illustrated the iconic Aikatsu aphorism pictures?
Jokes aside, the promotional material was encouraging enough. While not a high profile production, the animation seems to get the job done so far, even in the most demanding moments like the performances… though its workman mix of CG and 2D close-ups won’t win many awards while Carole and Tuesday is still being broadcast. The aspect that left the strongest impression, though, is the lighting work in the PV. Not the most refined in a technical sense, yet an impressive effort that distances itself from TV anime’s tendency to operate on 2/3 simple lighting conditions. Cheesy as it sounds, given is a perfect title to use that wider gamut of lighting not just to enhance the realism, but also the fantasy of love – conveying how the characters can genuinely find a new light in their lives. So for now, let me enjoy some bright optimism about given before reality wakes me up.
liborek (and the ghost of Kevin who’s to blame for any comment you don’t like): Seeing Masahiro Ando at the helm of a project with a strong potential beyond his own involvement is always a special kind of exciting, so I’m waiting for O Maidens in Your Savage Season with bated breath – while telling myself Ando is also working on Sword of the Stranger 2, because that dream will never die. Personal adoration of the director aside, though, the truth is that there’s another name at the core of this series: Mari Okada, who happens to be the original author and will be writing the script for the anime as well. As you’ve likely noticed, Okada has earned a special position unlike that of many if not all other current anime scriptwriters; she gets projects focusing specifically on her personal worries greenlit fairly regularly, and as of Maquia, she’s resolutely started treading animation production paths too. In an industry where writers don’t have much of a voice – which isn’t as much of a tragedy as you might be thinking, we’re talking about visual media that needs specific skillsets – we can hear her loud and clear.
And what is she roaring about this time around? As a firm believer that quirky Okada is the best kind of Okada, I’m proud to report that O Maidens in Your Savage Season is a downright hilarious, beautifully awkward, and sometimes furious story about young girls coming to terms with their sexuality. And by that I mean grappling with the fact that it exists at all, getting upset, then inadequately horny, and just going through all sorts of new and frankly not welcome emotions. Since this is not the kind of tone that Ando’s works are known for, it might take seasoned veterans to notice his personal quirks in this adaptation, but let me tell you something: no one’s going to miss the fact that this is a Mari Okada gig.
The anime’s team appears to know what to do with that material as well. The manga’s art had a tricky appeal to translate, but the animation designs turned out to be refined and attractive too; perfect for hair animation master Shohei Nishijima, who’s very likely to make an appearance. Even the muted palette and kinda intrusive, paper-like postprocessing effects feel like they might work here – a story about girls in a literature club, innocent on the surface yet clearly hiding something more. There’s no hiding that I’d prefer if this project had landed as studio BONES instead, not just due to Ando’s past there but because they’d have a more robust team at their disposal, but Ando should also be feeling at home at a sibling studio like Lay-duce. Even co-director Takuro Tsukada started off as a production assistant at BONES… coincidentally getting promoted to episode director during the production of Ando’s Blast of Tempest, where he ended up even co-directing the finale. Seeing the two come together again for a title this promising is yet another reason to be happy about O Maidens in Your Savage Season.
Dr. STONE (PV)
Director: Shinya Iino
Character Designer: Yuuko Iwasa
Design Works: Yoshio Mizumura
Main Animator: Hiroyuki Horiuchi
Kevin: A story that essentially amounts to speedrunning humanity’s long history of scientific and technological advances starting from zero, while at the same time gradually piecing together the mystery of how every single human being was petrified in an instant, can only be called wildly original. Post-apocalyptic media is a crowded genre space for sure, but Dr. STONE’s unique mix of Eureka! moments, ridiculous action, and neo-primitive community politics is genuinely like nothing else out there. That quirky identity has given the series a dedicated following, so surely the anime will be left in good hands to avoid disappointing its fans, right?
I would say the answer is yes, with some very obvious caveats. Although it’s the first time he leads a major project by himself, series director Shinya Iino stands out as the most exciting member of the crew. Iino, affectionately nicknamed ponte, quickly climbed the ranks at Kinema Citrus, culminating with his extensive work on Made in Abyss as an assistant series director. Still a short career, but successful enough for him to get an opportunity this big now that he’s a fully freelance agent. His ability to strike a balance between efficient management and creativity has proven to be attractive not just to investors but to artists themselves; Iino happens to run an amusing radio program where brilliant young animators and directors come hang out with him as guests. A funny anecdote, but also proof that he’s got what it takes to lead projects.
If you’re thinking that this means he’ll be able to attract all sorts of exceptionally talented individuals to this adaptation, though, I’d hold back those expectations a bit. Iino won’t be able to borrow many of his recent colleagues since Made in Abyss’ production is quietly advancing, and Dr. STONE’s main staff is much closer to Yowamushi Pedal’s art and animation crew than his own acquaintances. Not to say this is a big problem – veteran Hiroyuki Horiuchi as main animator and mechanical expert Yoshio Mizumura to design Senku’s inventions are good assets to have around – but don’t get too carried away hoping for an all-stars lineup. And regardless of who’s behind it, the footage we’ve been shown is stiff to say the least; one could assume that’s just their attempt to mimic the illustrative qualities of Boichi’s manga art, but since the direction seems kinda flat as well, I get the feeling the team’s having to cut more corners than they’d like.
In summary: unique series, capable leader, but perhaps not a project blessed with the resources the staff needs. Hopefully not enough of a problem to get too much in the way of a fun adventure!
Director: Masaharu Watanabe
Original Character Designer: Shinichirou Otsuka
Animation Character Designer: Satoshi Imanaka
Armanox Design: Jimmy Stone
Kevin: Granbelm is a curious case. As an original show featuring highschoolers who pilot magical, 2D animated mechs, it sort of feels like a lost artifact from a previous era of anime, and yet it’s very much rooted in current industry events. I suppose calling it Re:Zero Season 1.5 would be a bit of a stretch… but only a bit.
Depending on who you asked, Masaharu Watanabe was known as either a director trained at Kyoto Animation with a great understanding of space among other qualities, or the real identity of Gorou Sessha, Naruto’s most kinetic animation ace back in the day. After landing a hit as massive as Re:Zero, though, that became the one title you’d always hear about regarding his name. And to be perfectly fair, that’s also pretty much all he’s done in recent years; Watanabe went MIA in 2016 after Re:Zero, only resurfacing for a couple of cameo storyboards since then.
What was he doing, then? For starters, more Re:Zero – not just the OVAs but also the second season that had been greenlit all along, though that’s a story for another day. As it turns out, however, that’s not all there was to his disappearance, hence Granbelm’s existence. While I’d love to know the exact circumstances behind the project (perhaps it was a bunch of ideas they got during the production of Re:Zero? A “filler” project while they let enough source material build up for their main job?) its origins in a broader sense are very obvious. After all, Watanabe is accompanied by Re:Zero’s original designer Shinichirou Otsuka while heading the operations at studio Nexus, which produced 9 episodes of Re:Zero and was instrumental to its stability as a project. Though this isn’t an official spinoff, in some ways it might as well be.
Now I’m not going to urge all of Re:Zero’s fandom to go watch an original show with a noticeably different tone, but if you did enjoy its execution, it might be worth to keep this one in mind. Regardless of the obvious link to another title, Watanabe is a solid director working at a studio with excellent management when it comes to scheduling… though not so much when it comes to paying their staff for all their work, but that’s also a story for another day. Let’s hope that Granbelm is a more enjoyable story than Nexus’ dark past, though!
Before the end, it’s time for another round of quick notes on other interesting projects. For starters, we’d skipped Lord El-Melloi II’s Case Files simply because episode 0 aired months ago, so it’s not quite preview material. But Waver was a beloved character even among Fate/Zero detractors back in the day, so who’s going to say no to his grumpier adult adventures? Series director Makoto Kato was one of the greatest surprises of 2018 after his exceptional work in Bloom Into You, which gave the character’s emotional distance a physical component and even came up with imagery so on-point that the original mangaka added it to the source material. Accompanying him there’s his mentor Ei Aoki as supervisor, from whom Kato absorbed quirks like his recurring POV shots; more importantly though, this means you should expect stylistic continuity (though not similar tone) with Fate/Zero, since Aoki originally directed that show. Not exactly news since the series technically premiered long ago, but it felt worth noting for those unaware of it.
What else is there? Staff-wise, Ensemble Stars! deserves a mention by all means. Fan favorite series director Yasufumi Soejima – the person behind Jojo‘s most inspired sequences – and designers of the caliber of Haruko Iizuka are bringing back a huge project that was stuck in production limbo for a while, so I’m quite curious about the result. Main director Masakazu Hishida, who’d hidden his name under a temporary pseudonym until a prescreening event, has tons of experience in Takara Tomy’s wacky idol franchises, so chances are that he’ll try to exploit the wild developments that Enstars seemingly features.
Speaking of wild: did you now that Itsuki Imazaki, one of the craziest Kanada-style animators and ridiculous one-man army creator of AiMaiMi fame, will be directing Hensuki, a light novel adaptation about perverts? That’s a match made in heaven, or in hell, or both. If I had to pick an absurd saucy series, though, How Heavy Are the Dumbbells You Lift? would be my pick – director Mitsue Yamazaki is a well-documented weakness of mine, and I know I’m not alone.
Sequel-wise, one relatively expected but still noteworthy change was the promotion of Fumiaki Kouta to assistant series director for the new season of Symphogear; he’d spent multiple seasons as main animator, action director, and doing various design work, so he’d earned the right to have even more of a say about the show’s fate. Here’s hoping he puts together something as stunning as his episode of Revue Starlight! While it’s not in a position to match previous feats (remember episode #08?) I feel like Danmachi fans can rest assured that their season 2 won’t suffer as much of a quality dip as other recent sequels have, despite the fact that JC Staff is way too busy. Since Takagi-san is bound to stay as stable as ever, let me end this by wishing that Ikuhara and Lapintrack’s crew pay back Sarazanmai favors to studio C-Station by contributing in some way to Starmyu S3… though that might be tricky, since I’m not convinced that the kappa cartoon is truly finished. As usual, we’ll see!