Episode #00 of CloverWorks’ Fate/Grand Order Absolute Demonic Front: Babylonia anime has been recently revealed to the surprise of many, but things aren’t quite as they seem. Come join us as we explore the circumstances behind its production and what to expect going forward!
Fate/Grand Order Fes. has come and gone once again, signaling another year in the
ludicrously profitable exploitation machine much beloved mobile game’s no doubt long life. Attendees walked in expecting not just a good dose of the cursed Gudako kigurumi, but also all sorts of announcements in relation to the game, as has become a tradition in these sorts of franchise events. And announcements they got, including a surprise in the form of episode #00 of CloverWorks’ upcoming Fate/Grand Order Absolute Demonic Front: Babylonia, which was shown at the event itself and also made available in-game soon after it ended. After teasing the fans with a supposedly grand-scale production effort, a preview landing just a couple of months before the broadcast would surely give a good indication of what this team of capable of… right?
Well, not exactly. Just a quick look at the end credits, let alone the episode that precedes them, might give you enough hints to deduce that they held back a bit. Much as we love to sing the praises of Noriko Takao, one of the most overlooked directors in the TV anime space if you account for her tremendous skill, the absence of Series Director: (監督, kantoku): The person in charge of the entire production, both as a creative decision-maker and final supervisor. They outrank the rest of the staff and ultimately have the last word. Series with different levels of directors do exist however – Chief Director, Assistant Director, Series Episode Director, all sorts of non-standard roles. The hierarchy in those instances is a case by case scenario. Toshiyumi Akai and his assistant Miyuki Kuroki is the first major flag warning that this was more of a side project than a grandiose introduction to the series — which they’re saving up for when it finally arrives on TV. And worry not but when it does, you’ll also see those directors accompanied by an even stronger animation team than the crew gathered for this occasion; don’t take this as a slight against a more than respectable lineup with a few stars like Megumi Kouno herself, but you can look forward to a higher profile crew where those interesting individuals provide more substantial contributions than they did here too. Even the somewhat sizable number of assistant supervisors for a modest outing like this is something we suspect might not be representative of a show that’s secured itself quite the exceptional production schedule.
If you’re not quite sure how to parse all that, then the simple explanation is that this wasn’t a high priority episode by any means. Though the exact train of thought by the higher up executives tends to remain a secret in cases like this, it’s likely that it was requested specifically for the game’s 4th anniversary, and based on comments by certain staff members, there’s evidence that this decision was taken while the production on the actual show had already started — meaning that this is episode #00, but not truly the start of the production. And to be fair, this feels like sensible management of the team’s resources. Rather than a bombastic introduction, it’s meant to help ease viewers — particularly those who haven’t been playing the game — into Mash and Romani’s characters; if studio Lay-Duce’s Fate/Grand Order: First Order OVA was meant to get new viewers acquainted with the overall setting, then this serves a similar role when it comes to central members of the cast.
Keeping that in mind, then, it’s not that farfetched of an interpretation to consider this episode relatively modest by design. Hooking in viewers as soon as possible is important of course, but there wasn’t much of a point to make a non-standard release like this steal the thunder from its own wide premiere… especially if you consider that half the world is already into the game they’re adapting in the first place. And thus this tricky task — causing a positive first impression without spending all that many resources and not overshadowing the real premiere — fell to Takao, which I’m willing to argue wasn’t a coincidence either. After all, she’s one of few people who can deliver an end product that sticks to that goal while also being worth taking a closer look at. That’s not just bias towards my favourite director, but a sentiment shared by many of her peers, so much so that even renowned Production Assistant (制作進行, Seisaku Shinkou): Effectively the lowest ranking 'producer' role, and yet an essential cog in the system. They check and carry around the materials, and contact the dozens upon dozens of artists required to get an episode finished. Usually handling multiple episodes of the shows they're involved with. More Shouta Umehara couldn’t help but express his regret at not being able to work with her for it… while also cursing his fellow co-worker who had the honour, because it’s always nice to have a bit of banter. Incidentally, that management decision is another hint at the lower priority than you’d immediately expect.
As much as we’ve stressed out that this was meant to be more a smaller scale side project, Takao’s own presence is as striking as ever. You’re bound to find several instances of ripples and reflections in just a quick skim of the episode, as those have grown to be her biggest directorial quirks in their application as a window into the minds of the characters she’s dealing with. Keep a close eye out and you’ll even notice certain familiar shots that have managed to sneak in!
One thing we always try to avoid here though — and this is something regular visitors will have probably read for the umpteenth time at this point — is defining directors simply through the sum of their quirks. As recognizable as those might be, you’re frankly doing your beloved creators a disservice if you distill them down to the techniques they use the most but never question why they rely on them (even if it’s for reasons as straightforward as it looks nice) and how those choices manage to speak to the audience. It’s important to take a step back and see how they adapt those usual quirks, combining them with other techniques in their repertoire you might not have noticed before, to the material they’re charged with if you want a better understanding of how they really operate.
In the context of this episode, Mash’s growing fascination towards the sky isn’t exactly subtle considering its explicit narrative focus, but Takao’s Storyboard (絵コンテ, ekonte): The blueprints of animation. A series of usually simple drawings serving as anime's visual script, drawn on special sheets with fields for the animation cut number, notes for the staff and the matching lines of dialogue. More does just enough to make it feel that much more genuine. And that’s one of the reasons I feel she was the ideal pick for an episode like this; she’s the sort of director who can do more with less, portraying emotions with pinpoint precision even when given minimal tools to do so. See Marisbury’s short flashback, which makes his attachment to Chaldea and his relationship with his servant clear even while omitting almost all sound in favour of text, barring the very last line. Of course, I’m always going to argue that Takao should be allowed to go all out, but I’m not too worried about it in this scenario since she’s more than likely been given an episode or two within the actual show to do just that.
But let’s not kid anyone: one trait Babylonia will be sharing with most other entries in the Fate franchise will be its treatment of action as a centerpiece of the experience. Which is something of a Master of the Obvious statement, but let’s not forget everyone’s delight when they revealed that the aforementioned Kouno and Toya Oshima had been given the role of action director… and yet if you cast your eyes back to this episode’s credits, you’ll notice that there’s no such credit at all! It’s become common practice to include a specific credit for them, just look at Symphogear this season as an example of that, so its absence here only helps back up the idea that this was something of a side project while the team focused on bigger priorities.
Even with that in mind though, I’d be hard-pressed to argue that the episode suffered dramatically for it considering how exciting Mash’s possession-induced rampage was to watch. You could already tell something impressive was coming thanks to the weight imbued Taishi Kawakami‘s part, who has once again been praised for his superb art skills, to the point of being featured in the episode essentially uncorrected by any of the animation directors; when you draw such beautiful silhouettes, sharp expressions, and give it all very deliberate timing, what are they going to fix? Watching Mash as she forcefully broke free of her binds was enough to get me excited before the action even began in earnest.
Following that, another Kawakami — Yusuke this time — immediately delivers on those expectations. Those familiar with him will be aware of his use of use of Blender to create three-dimensional environments, and the lack of anyone specifically overseeing the action actually plays to that strength of his, allowing him free reign to be as creative as he’d like, while also impressing other team members that hadn’t yet been exposed to his style of work. Of course, I’d be doing him a disservice if I didn’t mention all the emphatic FX: Shorthand for effects animation – water, fire, beams, that kind of cut. A pillar of Japanese 2D animation. work present through the scene, but my favourite part of it all has to be Mash’s slow walk and wind up to an almost Obari-like thunderous punch. Good stuff!
There are a few more tidbits that caught the eye throughout the episode, but after so much talk about how this was a side project by a team capable of — and sure to deliver — something bigger in the future, it’d feel wrong not to talk about the other Fate/Grand Order surprise that surfaced, which was the product of another excellent crew at its very best. A new PV for the game celebrating its 4th anniversary had also been requested, and unsurprisingly they chose to rely on the duo of Shun Enokido and Takahito Sakazume once again due to their stellar work on previous promotional videos and TV commercials.
Enokido takes the role of director this time, once again joined by a powerful lineup that consists mainly of their friends and other people who worked on Fate/Apocrypha. The biggest surprise however is Kentaro Waki as Photography (撮影, Satsuei): The marriage of elements produced by different departments into a finished picture, involving filtering to make it more harmonious. A name inherited from the past, when cameras were actually used during this process. director, whose presence immediately distinguishes this PV from the previous ones due to his unmistakable approach seen on the likes of Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale and God Eater. His aesthetic, an evolution from Yuichi Terao‘s particle-heavy photorealism at studio ufotable, is frankly a contentious issue at the best of times, but I’d be lying if I said this anniversary video doesn’t look fantastic. His ability to merge the fairly stylized character art with such detailed digital effects — aided by the fact that many of the digital animators in the team drew Layouts (レイアウト): The drawings where animation is actually born; they expand the usually simple visual ideas from the storyboard into the actual skeleton of animation, detailing both the work of the key animator and the background artists. that would give more harmony to this piece — is easily one of the highlights here. In fact, it’s so good that it makes the pure CG shots scattered about feel a bit off, even though those should be the most cohesive!
And since I can’t help myself, let me also take a moment to shower Enokido with praise, because he seems to just get better and better as the years go on. His penchant for emphasising sheer scale and depth within huge battlegrounds that still remain coherent made his contributions to Apocrypha a treat to watch, and this PV feels exactly like that but dialed up to max. There are even some very familiar sequences mixed in, because you can’t really go wrong by taking inspiration from one of the best action specialists in the industry.
Truth to be told, while the PV is technically unrelated to the episode, it’s in line with this post’s theme of what to actually expect going forward, perhaps even more so than episode #00. That’s not to say that Babylonia is going to look exactly like it; there’s no Waki, for one! But the show is nevertheless a big deal for
Aniplex CloverWorks, and there’s no better proof of that than its miraculously healthy schedule that was mentioned either. They’re serious about delivering something special, and despite my own enjoyment of this episode, it doesn’t quite measure up to the quality that’s only fair to expect from the all-star lineup that’s gathered on the project. Things are only going to get better from here, that much we can assure you of.
Storyboard (絵コンテ, ekonte): The blueprints of animation. A series of usually simple drawings serving as anime's visual script, drawn on special sheets with fields for the animation cut number, notes for the staff and the matching lines of dialogue. More: Noriko Takao
Episode Direction (演出, enshutsu): A creative but also coordinative task, as it entails supervising the many departments and artists involved in the production of an episode – approving animation layouts alongside the Animation Director, overseeing the work of the photography team, the art department, CG staff... The role also exists in movies, refering to the individuals similarly in charge of segments of the film.: Takahiro Harada, Noriko Takao
Chief Animation Director (総作画監督, Sou Sakuga Kantoku): Often an overall credit that tends to be in the hands of the character designer, though as of late messy projects with multiple Chief ADs have increased in number; moreso than the regular animation directors, their job is to ensure the characters look like they're supposed to. Consistency is their goal, which they will enforce as much as they want (and can).: Tomoaki Takase
Animation Direction (作画監督, sakuga kantoku): The artists supervising the quality and consistency of the animation itself. They might correct cuts that deviate from the designs too much if they see it fit, but their job is mostly to ensure the motion is up to par while not looking too rough. Plenty of specialized Animation Direction roles exist – mecha, effects, creatures, all focused in one particular recurring element.: Shouta Iwasaki
Assistant Animation Directon: Shinpei Kobayashi, Kazuaki Shimada, Taishi Kawakami, Akira Takata
Key Animation (原画, genga): These artists draw the pivotal moments within the animation, basically defining the motion without actually completing the cut. The anime industry is known for allowing these individual artists lots of room to express their own style.: Taishi Kawakami, Yusuke Kawakami, Masaru Suzuki, Aya Takafuji, Takahiro Watabe, Nana Yamaguchi, Hiroyuki Kobashi, Takeshi Osame, Junpei Matsumoto, Kouta Michishita, Daisuke Takemoto, Miyuki Kobayashi, Yuuya Uetake, Yuusuke Souen, Yurie Hama, Eri Irei, Shouta Iwasaki, Shinpei Kobayashi, Megumi Kouno
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