The new season’s already starting, so you know what that means: it’s time for another detailed rundown of all new anime with particularly talented creative teams, to see what’s got the most potential and how each production is faring.
Fate/Grand Order Absolute Demonic Front: Babylonia (PV)
Director: Toshifumi Akai
Assistant Director: Miyuki Kuroki
Character Designer, Chief Animation Director: Tomoaki Takase
Creature Design, Action Director: Megumi Kouno
Action Director: Toya Oshima
Art Design: Yoshinori Shiozawa
Art Director: Hisayo Usui, Satoru Hirayanagi
Kevin: While writing the Fire Force entry for the Summer season preview, my foolish self went so overboard explaining the industry developments that led to David Production inheriting SHAFT’s strength that it ended up splitting into an article of its own. You might think that I find myself in the same situation because I’m incapable of learning from my mistakes. And you’d be right, but in my defense, we’re dealing with a production that’s about an order of magnitude more exceptional this time around, with none of Ohkubo’s nonsense to boot.
So, if you’re at all interested in Fate/Grand Order Absolute Demonic Front: Babylonia, I recommend you to read this piece about the studio’s blatant prioritization of the project, the financial and personal reasons behind that, plus an introduction to its all-stars team — mostly highlighting their exceptional skills and what they can contribute to the project, but also a couple of limitations the team as a whole might face. And if you’re not interested, I might even encourage you to reconsider that. A team of this caliber adapting a beloved yet not transformative iteration of Fate won’t convert viewers who outright despise the franchise and Type-Moon’s trademark worldbuilding, but if you’ve simply felt apathetic towards those before, then this crew’s emotional storytelling skills could finally get you truly invested in a Fate series.
Stars Align (PV)
Author, Director, Scriptwriter: Kazuki Akane
Animation Character Designer, Chief Animation Director: Yuichi Takahashi
Visual Designer: Miki Takeshita
Art Designer: Kazushi Fujii
Art Director: Shiori Shiwa
Kevin: After dedicating a whole essay to explain exactly what makes FGO Babylonia such an extraordinary project, it might sound nonsensical for me to say that the most ambitious title this season could be this mundane-looking show about kids playing soft tennis. But perhaps you’ll understand where I’m coming from when I say that this is a passion project by Kazuki Akane, best known as the director of Escaflowne, Noein, and Birdy the Mighty: Decode. If there’s one shared trait behind all of these, it’s precisely that: ambition, manifesting in different ways. Although Escaflowne‘s original pitch belongs to Shouji Kawamori (another creator with… bold ideas, let’s say) Akane reshaped that into its iconic shoujo-esque self, while also imbuing the production with the tremendous gravitas that became integral to its identity — and to Akane’s own brand too, for better and for worse.
That grand vision could be felt all over Noein, Akane’s first actual passion project. Its action scenes became a free canvas for the budding digital animation movement, which he saw potential in before most directors; a testament of his scouting skills but also his understanding of the particular qualities of digital animation, and how that could really help his need for setpieces that feel big. Besides serving as the alpha release for what we’ve come to know as the revolutionary webgen movement, Akane’s ambition during Noein‘s conception also made him build a dense narrative around quantum physics concepts… though unfortunately, that seemed to distract many viewers from its emotional core of the story, so it never managed to even come close to the popularity of his first title.
That trend continued with his reimagination of Birdy, which was seen as a quirky little series with a fun core relationship, but never received the credit it deserved for its lasting effect on anime’s best digital animation; were it not for Akane’s 00s titles, the Norio Matsumoto-inspired school of animation that defines webgen works to this day might have not taken off. Let it be known that his constant yet ever-evolving ambition can backfire spectacularly — I’ve heard first-hand horror stories of the delays it caused for the entire team during Code Geass: Akito the Exiled — but seeing Akane get treated as the director who made Escaflowne and then didn’t land a hit again feels like a small anime tragedy.
But enough about the director, what’s Stars Align about? Following sports anime tradition, it’s a coming of age story that deals with the bitterness of adolescence as a starting point, all framed through a soft tennis club that’s on the verge of being shut down. Does that sound too down to earth for a creator we’ve been touting as a unique and wildly ambitious storyteller? Perhaps so, but don’t let that lead you to think that Stars Align isn’t near and dear to Akane’s heart; as if the fact that he came up with the original concept and wrote the scripts on top of directing the entire series wasn’t clear enough, Akane has openly admitted that this is a project he wanted to make for a very long time, and he’s delighted that he finally had a chance to.
I’ll be frank and admit that I have no idea where Akane’s grand ideas will take him on a narrative level now that he’s dealing with a mundane scenario, other than the fact that friends who saw the premiere confirmed that it was heavier than it might appear, but at least I know that Akane’s unwillingness to cut corners production-wise is the same as ever. Whatever vision he has, he won’t make compromises about it, even when he’s dealing with a constant motion activity like (soft) tennis. Due to their breakneck pace and particular demands — like the need to keep matches played in small and static environments visually engaging for long periods of time — racket sports are an absolute nightmare of a theme for a TV anime production. Not that long ago, we saw Hanebado‘s attempt at addressing that: a high-profile production backed by a multimedia giant like TOHO, taking a very realistic approach via lots and lots of rotoscoping.
While that worked well for Hanebado, at least until the production ran out of steam, a project like Stars Align simply doesn’t have the resources to attempt to painstakingly recreate sports matches in a photorealistic way. Ever since the first PV we’ve known for a fact that, although they have studied reference footage so that their depiction of the sport has an authentic feel to it, the actual animation is much more exaggerated, the kind of loose work that we’ve come to expect from Akane’s works. When it comes to visual engagement, Akane’s placing his bets on the very involved camerawork to convey the tension of the matches even for the viewers who aren’t invested in tennis. If you’re more of a traditional animation purist and this is making excessive CGi alarms ring in your head, rest assured: the director’s already said that it’s restricted environments and far shots, and then confessed he’s trying to make those look indistinguishable from the traditional footage. Regardless of his role in advancing anime’s digital efforts, Akane’s always been a strong believer in hand-drawn animation.
It goes without saying that Akane won’t be able to reproduce the extraordinary teams he once gathered; be it due to the intermittent nature of his anime career or simply because time’s unforgiving, younger creators have taken the mantle of industry leaders. However, this industry is all about relying on your acquaintances, and Akane managed to meet quite a lot of talented individuals when he was all the rage. One of them happens to be character designer and chief animation director Yuichi Takahashi, whose skills stood out to Akane back during Noein‘s production to the point that he’s always wanted to collaborate with him like this. It’s easy to see why: Takahashi is at his best when dealing with simple designs that he can give malleable quality to — like Tsuritama and Stars Align itself — and that happens to fit the director’s needs of free expression to a T.
Will the whole team be able to realize Akane’s always demanding vision for the whole show? We know for a fact that they’ve got an above-average production buffer since they showed very advanced production stages for episode #4 months ago, which checks out with how long it’s been since the show’s announcement, but I always advise some precaution with Akane; his ambition, especially on a limited TV anime environment, can be a double-edged sword. That said, even if worse comes to worst in the latter parts of the production, I’d still recommend giving this show a chance. Flawed as I admit his works often are, Akane seems physically incapable of making anime that isn’t fascinating in some way. And come on, how am I not supposed to be optimistic about the fate of a title localized as Stars Align?
Kevin: Now this is a lineup that feels like it could easily belong to a decade-old project as opposed to an upcoming one. Blade of the Immortal ran for 30 volumes between 1993 to 2012, and while its samurai-themed tale about the pointlessness of living to seek revenge didn’t bring anything new to the table per se, Hiroaki Samura‘s striking art made the carnage so memorable that the series endured in fandom memory beyond its end. That allowed it to keep getting rebooted in various formats, including a stage play and the 2017 live-action film directed by Takashi Miike. With this continued success, it’s not that much of a surprise that they’ve convinced Samura to supervise a sort of manga sequel this year, accompanying this new anime adaptation that aims to adapt the original series in full for the first time.
When themes like futility are on the table and your goal is to make something that feels dreary but not simply inert, you can never go wrong with Hiroshi Hamasaki as your series director; and I’m not only saying this because that’s exactly his forte, but because he has ended up feeling weirdly miscast in some of his project that needed a more lively and colorful approach than he feels comfortable with. Fortunately, that shouldn’t be a factor here — neither should be censorship worries regarding the gruesome spectacle that fans came to love Blade of the Immortal for, since this is an Amazon exclusive and thus it has no TV standards to worry about. The promotional videos themselves aren’t shy when it comes to showing gruesome scenes either, as if to reassure old fans. Considering that he personally sought peculiar composers outside the standard realm of anime like Eiko Ishibashi and Jim O’Rourke, Hamasaki’s intent to make a truly haunting series couldn’t be any clearer.
If there’s one thing that’s likely to make Blade of the Immortal‘s bloodshed more visceral than ever it’s not a lack of broadcast restrictions, however, but the presence of Shingo Ogiso as character designer and presumably chief animation director too. Ogiso is an exceptionally versatile animator, the kind who always has a quality that your project needs. As someone who spent his formative stages in long-running productions like Bleach, he knows how to make his animation economical without sacrificing its appeal, often relying on short loops that are so cool you barely notice they’re over in the blink of an eye. At the same time, his character animation defaults to very articulate acting, which allowed him to act as the main animator on titles like Aiura despite supposedly being an action specialist.
There’s more to love to Ogiso’s animation, like his usage of sparks during swordfights to accentuate the feeling of impact, but perhaps the most relevant quality of his is the excellent grasp on perspective. Ogiso would often get entrusted with scenes featuring characters moving in different trajectories than the camera due to his ability to nail the tricky perspective, and even when he wasn’t, he’d add extra nuance to the scenes with movement beyond a 2D axis. Apply those skills to Blade of the Immortal, and you get not just the possibility of some cool action for as long as the production stays afloat, but also nightmarish imagery with a chilling voyeuristic feel to it due to Ogiso’s authentic-feeling layouts. As long as they don’t forget to let the series breathe in their attempt to adapt everything, all remaining Blade of the Immortal fans should be pleased by this — and I imagine many more will join them.
liborek: After 63 episodes and various side gigs, nearing the start of the fourth season, is there much to introduce about My Hero Academia? Under normal circumstances, the answer would be no, but the dimension of the title and its ever-changing production circumstances make it worth discussing once again. The most avid HeroAca fans among you have likely realized that this upcoming season promises to shake things up in ways that sound very significant — but are they really?
To put it in precise terms, Kenji Nagasaki is moving to a supervisory role after having directed all previous material. While he focuses his efforts more directly on the new movie, a relatively known director with a rather mixed resume like Masahiro Mukai took up the baton for the TV series. Now that might sound worrying, but there are reasons to believe that this will work out well. Nagasaki’s strength lies in thematic aspects that are near to HeroAca‘s heart: the ability to convey positivity, excitement, and all the emotions that the series’ heroism evokes in an overwhelming way. That’s unlikely to change considering how well-defined the anime’s identity is at this point, so instead, it’s the visual delivery of those ideas that might differ from what we’ve seen so far. And as it turns out, that’s Mukai’s forte much more than Nagasaki’s, hence why there’s reason to be moderately optimistic about this arrangement; add his storyboarding and atmospheric prowess to the aesthetic evolution by the hand of studio BONES’ new director of photography Takashi Sawa — who seems to be ditching the very clean look for more adventurous lighting effects — and you get something that stands to be the most inspired visual showcase in the franchise.
My Hero Academia is exactly two episodes away from becoming BONES’ longest continuous project. And I say continuous for a reason: the show’s production has been moving forward even during the breaks between seasons, and this has been the case for past year as well. That extra long break allowed the team to accumulate an outstanding production buffer, and as a result they’ve practically wrapped up the first half of the season by now. With plenty of time to polish the product and animators — including a beloved certain someone — being specifically reserved for this project, we can as usual look forward to some spectacular highlights. Perhaps more bombastic than ever before!
SUPER SHIRO (PV)
Chief Director: Masaaki Yuasa
Chief Director But Written In A Different Way: Tomohisa Shimoyama
Kevin: Did you know that we’re just 10 days away from Science Saru’s new show, co-directed by their one and only Masaaki Yuasa? Probably not, but I can’t fault you for that. The odds are stacked against SUPER SHIRO‘s popularity. For starters, it’s exclusive to AbemaTV and Video Pass, a couple of streaming and online television services that can’t be accessed from outside Japan. And even if that exclusivity turns out to only apply within the country, I wouldn’t be confident about any service trying to pick up the license. SUPER SHIRO is a new Shin-chan spinoff featuring the Nohara family’s dog in a lead superhero role based off the most simple pun, which is inherently hilarious if the series occupies an important place in your childhood — I’ve got a Shin-chan mug in front of me as I type this since the franchise was deeply absorbed into Catalan culture — but will mean nothing to you otherwise, which is sadly the case among most English-speaking anime fans.
So here’s the deal: if you never got to watch Shin-chan as you grew up, use this new series as an excuse to pick it up. Much like with Doraemon, the movies are excellent self-contained pieces that are strongly themed to keep them fresh each year, and even the TV series itself was a very worthwhile watch for the longest time. All sorts of renowned directors throughout the years matured as creators by working on Shin-chan; that includes the likes of Keiichi Hara (Miss Hokusai), Tsutomu Mizushima (Girls und Panzer, Shirobako), and of course Yuasa himself. Even this very project embodies that to some degree: Tomohisa Shimoyama, who only recently made his directorial debut on DEVILMAN crybaby #4, will be sharing chief series direction duties with Yuasa. Since the latter is busier than ever, having wrapped up a movie earlier this year only to move onto a TV show and yet another film, I’d expect Shimoyama to have a more hands-on role, with Yuasa helping on a more conceptual level and lending his experience.
Either way, this is the adorable seasonal series that very few people will care about and yet I feel compelled to bring to attention. Just look at its official Instagram account, which is nothing but a plushie taking selfies. Science Saru staff have even made stop-motion clips with him. What’s there not to love?
Kevin: Studio Orange’s latest TV show Land of the Lustrous is one of the most interesting titles we’ve had the opportunity to cover in this site. It was undoubtedly a critical success, a production we might be looking back on in the future as a game-changer not just because of its technical merits but for what it did regarding the fandom’s mentality towards 3DCG anime. So, now that the studio’s next series is about to arrive, I recommend to… forget all of that actually, for your sake and the staff’s. While it’s true that series director Shinichi Matsumi was part of the core team in Land of the Lustrous, it’s important to note that most of that crew is no longer in charge; amusingly enough, that’s in part due to the show’s success too, since it led to its staff being in very high demand by huge industry players like TOHO.
That said, even those who remain are aiming for a fundamentally different style, with motion capture playing a more central role. This time around, the CG animation efforts will be commanded by the studio’s own CEO, Eiji Inomoto. As the veteran he is, Inomoto’s had to live through an era where any 3D elements that the audience could notice were deemed to be kind of a sin, which fueled his current belief that CGi in anime should justify its existence, in contrast to younger digital artists who don’t necessarily perceive hand-drawn art as the default. But how does Inomoto attempt to justify his work anyway? Usually through very dynamic camerawork, which might be why the lengthy shots with shifting perspectives in the BEASTARS teasers already feel somewhat more reminiscent of the frenetic sequences in Akito than the aforementioned Land of the Lustrous.
Will that approach lead to an adaptation that captures Paru Itagaki‘s eye-catching rough art, her chaotic paneling with deliberately cinematic progression? Honestly, not really, but that’s part of what makes Orange’s modern output so intriguing. Rather than playing it safe after making a qualitative leap, their project selection’s only getting bolder, as if it were specifically targetting works that could never be directly translated into 3DCG and thus had to be reinterpreted by their staff. Regardless of whether they succeed or not, those demanding projects force their staff to keep honing their skills in new ways, preparing them for the next challenge. And that’s why, even when these reimaginations don’t always live up to the original, I can’t help but admire the studio’s attitude. Color me intrigued about their take on BEASTARS!
Kevin: Not content with making its gameplay experience much more palatable than Kantai Collection‘s, Azur Lane also aims to take to crown as the better shipgirl cartoon adaptation. Series director Motoki Tanaka aka Tensho has a rather uneven output to be fair, but that’s something that can be blamed on project selection just as much if not more than on his personal shortcomings as a director. When it comes to cute series that give him leeway for original material, you actually get some of his best modern work, like the memorable musical finale for the first season of Kiniro Mosaic. And if that still doesn’t convince you, then I’d say that you’re being reasonable, then tell you to focus on the actual reason the series was included here: character designer and chief animation director Masayuki Nonaka, master of bouncy animation.
Nonaka’s exceptional skill as an animator, be it in action or laid back scenes, is almost beside the point here. Yes, it’s technically impressive, but its real merit lies in the ability to convey a lively atmosphere through the animation itself; that joyful bounciness is infectious, it permeates the core of the work and forces a smile onto your face. Having someone like that as your chief animation director is ideal if you want to establish a cheerful tone throughout the entire work… in theory anyway, since we’ve yet to see a TV production that could keep up with Nonaka all the way through. Perhaps this time, fueled by studio Bibury’s commendable practices like doubling the animation rates, the rest of the staff might have the emotional energy to keep up with Nonaka’s bounciness.
Cautious Hero: The Hero is Overpowered but Overly Cautious (PV)
Director: Masayuki Sakoi
Character Designer, Chief Animation Director, Prop Designer: Mai Toda
Art Director: Yoshito Takamine, Kazunori Miyazato
Kevin: The last series we’ll be highlighting actually tells you everything you need to know with its title. Cautious Hero follows a goddess in a pinch as she summons a hero who takes the trope of overpowered isekai protagonists to a whole new level… except he’s held back by a level of caution that’s completely at odds with his invincible status. Now that’d be an amusing idea for a one-shot, but can an entire series survive on iterations of essentially one gag? The answer might be yes, as long as it’s got one of the funniest animation designers currently working in anime. Admittedly, this is something that the author appears to agree with, seeing how the manga adaptation that predates this TV show is also carried by an endless stream of ridiculous expressions. Mai Toda, whom we wrote about when the wonderful Girls’ Last Tour anime, took the helm of the animation to do what she does best: grant it elasticity, keep it tactile, and make the faces even more outrageous if possible. Again, is this enough of a reason to recommend a series? Probably, yeah.
I promise the final nods section will be shorter than usual this time around, but I’d still feel somewhat bad if I didn’t acknowledge titles like the third season of Chihayafuru; we considered including it, but since it was less likely than the new HeroAca to have significant changes — not a bad thing if you’re already a fan — it got relegated to these footnotes. One series that would have easily earned its position if all we considered was production quality would be Kabukicho Sherlock: a rock-solid I.G effort with a healthy schedule and easy access to my heart through the character designs by Persona 5‘s Toshiyuki Yahagi. Unfortunately, a certain uncomfortable character and having seen someone get screwed by the otherwise smooth production kinda soured me on it, so to the naughty list it goes. Pet, Takahiro Omori‘s new project, was another quick addition to our shortlist that never materialized — quite literally so, since there’s barely any official acknowledgment of the anime.
As a known kids anime respecter, I’ve also got to give a nod to Welcome to Demon School, Iruma-kun; Makoto Moriwaki has directed some of the goofiest but also most heartful anime series for children, from My Melo to Pripara, so I’d be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t give this one a try, even if it’s an adaptation (of a series that fits her wacky tone of choice, to be fair) as well as clearly low priority production. And since I somehow end up getting this question every season, my fairly surface-level recommendation when it comes to the LNs we didn’t talk about is to check out the prodigies show if you liked Rakudai Kishi and/or Akane Yano’s design work, opt for Assassin’s Pride if you want more traditionally beautiful visuals, or be smart and follow the one with the little girl who wants to be a librarian in another world, since that one seems the cutest and that’s what’s important. Did you know Hoshimiya Ichigo’s voice actress is singing the opening for that one? Is it too late for me to add Aikatsu On Parade on top of this list? Please respond.