Surviving The Production Labyrinth: Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? II / DanMachi II

Surviving The Production Labyrinth: Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? II / DanMachi II

While plenty of other sequels at J.C. Staff are falling apart to different degrees, DanMachi has managed to return (mostly) unscathed. And so it’s time to explain how it’s survived turbulent times at the studio, how they’ve tackled the new production, and most importantly, what the strengths of the franchise were in the first place!


In the season preview we urged Danmachi fans not to worry too much about the fate of the production, despite the widespread panic – in some ways justified – regarding J.C. Staff sequels at the moment. And, rather than betray our expectations by falling apart, the first few episodes have been so solid that they’ve encouraged us to write this follow-up piece we hadn’t planned. But for starters, let’s get into what is Is it Wrong to Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon, apart from a very unwieldy title.

Even if you don’t consider yourself to be above light novels altogether, Danmachi has enough dubious flags on display that I can’t blame anyone who skipped it without giving it a chance. The title itself sounds like something a male chauvinist would come up with, and the one thing that immediately went viral was Suzuhito Yasuda’s most questionable fashion decision. On top of that, it appeared to star yet another protagonist mocked for his weakness yet secretly blessed with unique abilities with the potential to make him the strongest. That’s explained by gamified mechanics that such series often use as a shortcut to avoid coming up with unique abilities and systems of their own. So surely, the reason we chose to feature the series here must have been exceptional production values alone, right?

Well, no. For starters, the original series was a respectable animation effort, but nothing truly outside the norm – its attractive, fluid effects work thanks to animators like Hiroshi Tomioka and the cathartic visceral fight in episode #08 being its greatest accomplishments, as many fans will remember. The setting, thought-out enough to feature architecture that accounts for the possibility of monsters suddenly rampaging around, was beautifully depicted by the artists at studio Moon Flower; a job first led by Toshiharu Mizutani of Yuri on ICE and Banana Fish fame, then replaced by Flying Witch’s Yasuhiro Okumura. Though the production values took a hit around the end of the first season that made it impossible to reach its previous peaks, the overall package was a comfortably above-average labor of love.

And while that’s all nice, the truth is that I personally wouldn’t have kept up with the series for so long if it weren’t offering way more than that. For all those negative-sounding things I said, Danmachi’s actually a lovely show about a group of misfits forming a family and finding their place in a fantasy world. A story about turning a selfish, superficial understanding of heroism into a more selfless means of self-improvement, naive as it may be. It’s got one of the strongest central relationships I’ve encountered in this genre space, and nothing about it is less subtle than making familia the core concept of its narrative and mythos. It is a wish-fulfillment series that’s not free from genre trappings, but if anything, its quality only shows that there’s nothing inherently wrong with that! It likely won’t change your mind regarding light novels of this kind, but rather make you wish they were all this genuine and pleasant. If only all protagonists were as charming as Bell Cranell, the cutest hero in the making according to the latest survey I held among myself.

Now that we’ve established that there’s more than meets the eye to Danmachi, taking a quick look at the directorial lineup feels quite relevant; as you’ll see, that same theme applies to the individuals who have led the project as well. After all, the first season was directed by Yoshinobu Yamakawa, known for KEY adaptations that never stood a chance to live up to preceding productions and a comedy series that only reached memetic status after people – including its official accounts – joked about its low sales for long enough.

That doesn’t paint the full picture, though. For one, Yamakawa’s actual directorial and writing debut was HELLS, a radically stylish theatrical project worthy of admiration… even if you happen to believe its latter half collapsed upon its own ambition, which I do, but you can take my admiration for the project in spite of that harsh assessment as proof of how unique it was. After a few commercially-minded projects that didn’t manage to make it big and a wildly idiosyncratic movie that didn’t manage to earn a reputation of cult classic, Danmachi’s major success felt like some well-earned acknowledgment for Yamakawa. A series with much stronger foundations than you might expect from what it presents on a surface level might have been the perfect breakout hit for him – a director with a good grasp of many aspects that go into creating an animated work, even if quickly skimming his resume might not give you that impression.

Besides being the project leader, the reason we’ve put emphasis on Yamakawa’s role is that… he left. Danmachi was a hit, but no level of success will change how much time you need to produce a sequel, especially if you have to wait for enough source material to accumulate. While they found ways to keep the interest in the property alive via other animated entries, even those took long enough that Yamakawa had already moved on by then. The Danmachi OVA (2016) and Sword Oratoria spinoff (2017), arguably the least inspired parts of this extended universe, were directed by Youhei Suzuki, who can only do so much considering how many projects he’s burdened with. Albeit ultimately inconsequential, the original movie that premiered earlier this year was luckier; better managed as a project and directed by the quietly brilliant Katsushi Sakurabi, who matured during the studio’s golden age circa Utena and recently directed some of their most overlooked gems ala Flying Witch and Alice & Zoroku.

After finding another skilled director who fit the understated qualities of Danmachi in Sakurabi – non-orthodox family bonds are also his forte after all – you’d think the constant changes would stop. And you’d be wrong. Before you panic, let me add that I believe the studio made a very smart choice when it comes to production management: since the movie and the TV series were due to be released just a few months apart, they were handed to two fundamentally different teams. Two directors leading their own projects, as well as two animation producers to gather their crews without the big overlap you’d normally expect.

The upside of that is already appreciable now. Though the results were far from theatrical anime highs, and it required a fair share of assistance from studio L-a-unch Box, the movie was a decent realization of bigger setpieces than the TV series featured; the effects work by specialists like Ryuta Yanagi, plus the reappearance of OPM2’s hero Kenichiro Aoki and the master of articulate acting Kosuke Yoshida are some of its best treats for animation fans. Due to that arrangement, the production of the second season was able to advance concurrently without taking much of a hit – if anything it’s started comfortably above expectations, hence the existence of this article. If it finds some stability, which is something that chief supervisor Shigeki Kimoto is known to be able to provide, then Danmachi fans won’t have much to worry about.

When it comes to the production values, that is. The least encouraging side to the studio’s strategy to divide the teams is that the TV show’s new director is Hideki Tachibana. And no matter how positive I try to be in a post celebrating a franchise that’s been faring surprisingly well for years, it’d be dishonest to sell that as great news; he’s got enough massive duds as a project leader that I don’t believe it can all be excused with explanations like unfitting material and inherent lack of potential. What I can do, though, is assuage some worries about that. Based on what we’ve seen, I believe Danmachi‘s identity was too well-established for Tachibana to even try to rock the boat, so I’d expect something comfortably similar to the first season. The storyboarding might not be equally on point since some key players are busy, and the flavor of the bigger action moments might change since that’s what Tachibana specializes in, but expect no fundamental reimagination of a formula that already worked.

As a bit of a side note, it’s also worth pointing out that despite the constant changes in the production team after the first season, Danmachi has always been a franchise that J.C. Staff has kept close to its chest. The studio is overwhelmed by its own workload to the point of having to subcontract entire projects against their original plans, while others get shipped in a clear half-baked state. On this very season, two of their series have outsourced the production of every episode so far. And yet Bell and Hestia prevail, quite healthily at that. Danmachi fans, be happy about what you’ve got!

That’s been more than enough talk about the series as a whole and how it’s managed to survive the current chaos at J.C. Staff, so how about a proper look at these first few episodes? Truth to be told, the premiere wasn’t going to surprise surprise any viewer. Amidst all the setup for the new arc, the clear standout moment was once again the honest bond between Hestia and Bell; the former’s jealous fits and exaggerated romcom shenanigans might be one weaker parts of the series, but she’ll always wholeheartedly support her family member when it matters. Upon hearing that he got badly hurt defending her honor, rather than loudly squeeing, Hestia kindly convinced him to laugh it off next time, because the joy of seeing Bell stand up for her could never offset the sadness of watching him get hurt. A perfect sample of what makes their relationship, and Danmachi as a whole, feel so gentle.

With no unexpected developments – in a good way – and with Tachibana’s workman-like storyboards, the most noteworthy events in the first episode were in the animation department. You’ll notice that as early as the high-octane introductory scene, key animated by Hayato Kurosaki, a fairly overlooked effects specialist; you can tell I’m not kidding when I say that he’s a 2DFX enthusiast because the wolves they’re fighting are quite literally made of fire shapes. Kurosaki, whom you can find this season over at Symphogear as well, is the kind of artist many TV anime directors love to have in their team: capable of adapting to the scope of the project, and likely to deliver something eye-catching even in dubious circumstances.

He’s got a history with J.C. Staff and Danmachi in particular, having worked regularly on Sword Oratoria, but his first appearance in the sequel was a step above his previous contributions to the franchise. Kurosaki’s at his best when he can get more adventurous with the shapes of effects than standard explosions allow, and we did get a bit of a glimpse of that in this scene. His real forte, though, is using sparks and dispersion of particles to depict clashes, even when they involve magical beams that are tricky to attribute weight to. Certainly made the monster’s fire attack pack a punch!

That said, the premiere’s real animation highlight came after that. The brawl at the bar was exceptional before any punch even landed – you might have noticed that the production switched gears as soon as the first cut, with the careful shifting of posture. The gesture work is on the authentic side, as is the attention to weight conveyed with subtle secondary motion (be it hair swaying or bodies bouncing when people get tossed around), and yet it’s impossible to say animation with loose finishing touches like this is truly realistic. Don’t take that as criticism, though: authenticity is a spectrum and there’s no inherent requirement to adhere to a single register when animating, and if anything, this ability to combine them shows that the animator who drew it had a wide skillset. I suspect the culprit worked uncredited, but whoever it was, they hit it out of the park.

Animation-wise, the final nod in the first episode has to go to the ballroom dance scene. It’s fairly economical all things considered, but the way a couple of layouts conveyed spaciousness by making the characters move towards the camera stood out as some of the most skillful work in the whole episode too. Aiz’s flowing hair and the implied motion even in the still shots – thanks to talented artists like Hyein – left a strong impression as well. No adaptation of Yasuda’s designs will ever come close to ryochimo reinventing them for his Yozakura Quartet anime, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find a handful of drawings there to be unexpectedly gorgeous. Another pleasant surprise to add to Danmachi‘s collection!

As if to reinforce the positive vibes with some minor gripes that we’ve been talking about, the next episodes have continued to offer a mostly solid experience. While the narrative might be moving forward a bit too fast for all the important character beats to have the gravitas they deserve, they still maintain that same familiar, sweet taste; sure it’d have been nice for Lili’s arc to have had more breathing room, but everyone’s decision to formally join Hestia’s familia still felt heartfelt since everyone’s bonds had already grown to be believably family-like. Even the goddess’ profession of love for Bell in the second episode, framed half-jokingly, came across as more genuine than other title’s serious efforts, simply because Danmachi‘s emotional groundwork is impeccable. At this point, positive inertia alone can do so much for this series.

But while Danmachi‘s pleasant character work is almost a given now, J.C. Staff’s delicate state meant that we couldn’t take the first episode’s strong production values so granted, so it’s important to note that so far all episodes have also maintained a more than reasonable level that never gets in the way of the enjoyment. The usual post-premiere dip did happen and the storyboards admittedly got sloppier here and there – especially in the second episode that forced Tachibana to stray further from the pure action environments that he’s comfortable with – but every one of those minor issues was made up for and then some with some more by other excellent scenes.

Kurosaki’s quick reappearance to supervise the short but intense sparring in episode #3 is worthy of note, but it’s the second episode’s action that caught everyone’s eye, and for good reason at that. For starters, it was an outlet for one of Danmachi‘s most striking aesthetic tricks. Whenever Bell finds himself in particularly dire situations that can be presented with uniform lighting conditions without breaking the immersion too much, the series has shown to be fond of ditching shading altogether and make those scenes stand out with kagenashi art… which is actually more like zenkage in this case since it’s all set in the shadows, but getting too fancy with the terms will only detract from the main point: Bell’s desperate struggle is deliberately presented in different fashion, and also it looks goddamn neat.

Though of course, it helps that animators of the caliber of J.C. Staff’s Tanaka-style ace Hiroshi Tomioka participated in Bell’s fight against Hyakinthos. If the action highlight of the first episode had the illusion of weight as its greatest achievement, an artist like him is bound to put emphasis on fluidity instead, even if the scene isn’t as highly kinetic as you might expect from him. Although I’ve criticized Tachibana’s storyboard, a few cuts during this scene also show an interesting quality of his: like we’d already seen during the first episode’s dancing sequence, he’ll often come up with deceitfully tricky fixed camera shots that convey depth by having objects and characters move towards our POV. And again, having excellent animators like the aforementioned Tomioka, veteran Shinya Hasegawa, and action supervisor Hiroyasu Oda available to interpret his ideas is a good way to ensure they’re executed properly.

So, will that team be able to continue dodging writing pitfalls, dangerous staff reshuffling, increasing production fatigue, and the entire studio sort of collapsing? As it turns out, adventuring in the dungeon is no joke, but there are still enough reasons to believe that Bell’s adventure will continue to be more pleasant than it has any right to be.


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Episode 01

Storyboard, Episode Direction: Hideki Tachibana
Chief Animation Director, Animation Direction: Shigeki Kimoto
Assistant Animation Director: Haruka Sano, Yukie Hiyamizu
Cooking Animation Director: Hiroshi Yakou

Key Animation: Hayato Kurosaki, Mai Furuki, Shunya Sato, Manami Ito, Teppei Okuda, Shigeki Kimoto, Ikuma Fujibe, Yusuke Kurinishi, Tetsuya Sakamoto, Asumi Kato, Isamu Fukushima, TOMATO, Shoichiro Nishimi, Shiho Nagasaki, Yu Murakami, Wataru Hasegawa

Yutaka Kunimoto, Yukie Yoshioka, Mineko Ueda, Saori Hosoda, Hyein, Nana Mori, 楊烈駿, Haruka Sano, Yukie Hiyamizu


Episode 02

Storyboard: Hideki Tachibana
Episode Direction: Kouzou Kaiho
Episode Supervisor: Youhei Suzuki
Chief Animation Director: Shigeki Kimoto
Animation Direction: Yukie Hiyamizu, Yu Murakami, Haruka Sano, Shouko Yasuda, Mineko Ueda,
Assistant Animation Director: Isamu Fukushima, Katsuhiro Kumagai
Action Supervisor: Hiroyasu Oda

Key Animation: Yu Murakami, Haruka Sano, Tetsuya Sakamoto, Mai Furuki, Shiho Nagasaki, Yukie Hiyamizu, Hiroshi Tomioka, Hiroshi Yakou, Shinya Hasegawa, Yousuke Obuchi, Ikuma Fujibe, Teppei Okuda, Mineko Ueda, Hiroyasu Oda, Shunya Sato, Hiroyuki Sugawara, Takuya Nishimichi, Yuuya Uetake, Masumi Hattori, Manami Ito, Chinami Shibata, Tomoko Kitagawa, Ryouko Kawamura, Naoko Hayashi


Episode 03

Storyboard, Episode Direction: Toshikazu Hashimoto
Chief Animation Director: Shigeki Kimoto
Animation Direction: Tetsuya Sakamoto, Mai Furuki, Ikuma Fujibe, Teppei Okuda, Yochiko Saitou
Action Supervisor: Hayato Kurosaki

Key Animation: Shiho Nagasaki, Ikuma Fujibe, Teppei Okuda, Shouta Tsutsumi, Hiroshi Yakou, Yuuko Kamiyama, Ai Nakanishi, Wataru Hasegawa, Satomi Kitahara, Kaoru Nakagawa, Beom Seok Hong, Matsumi Hattori, Shintarou Kurata, Hodaka Hashimoto, Hibiki Yamaguchi, Manami Ito, Shigeki Awai, Kanako Baba, Takuya Ihara, Hideo Amemiya, Takumi Onuki, Yutaka Kunimoto

Revival, I&S Factory


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AniHunter
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AniHunter

“On this very season, two of their series have outsourced the production of every episode so far.” And to make matters worse, it’s to the same animation house (ACGT). Which means resources over there are also going to be stretched further than they already are since it’s the exact same key animators on both shows thus far. I feel like if J.C. didn’t accept as many projects as they did, then we wouldn’t be lambasting them for their slapdash production schedules. Then again, I could say the same thing about a lot of animation houses in Japan, South Korea and… Read more »

arb_g
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arb_g

If studios are consistently picking up more projects than they can handle, then it seems likely to me that it’s because they aren’t getting enough revenue per project. Production committees aren’t giving them a large enough piece of the pie, thinking that shows that fall apart can still advertise the source material enough to get a return on investment.

I hope that the industry learns better, and soon.

AniHunter
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AniHunter

Not going to happen I’m afraid. Bringing up the VFX industry again, similar practices and constant competitor push (as there’s so many studios out there) are what’s making the employees at some studios speak out. More so those at Moving Picture Company than others, but I would be certain it’s happening at many others. Anime’s in a similar boat, sure there’s a union out there, which is more than I can say about the VFX industry, but it’s only being championed by two over the hill animation studios (Anime R and Studio Live) and some scattered freelancers from what I’ve… Read more »