Unknown to most people, Studio WIT’s regional branch is already operative with the goals to train young artists, revitalize animation for children, and give a platform to independent creators in the process. Let’s see what they’re capable of, starting with The Girl From the Other Side!
Knowing that it was getting a beautiful-looking short film adaptation, I had plans to write about Totsukuni no Shoujo — localized as The Girl From the Other Side in English, with the traditional, sorrowful Irish song Siúil a Rún attached as a subtitle. As soon as I got to watch it, I was pleased to see it was every bit as unreasonably pretty as the early imageboards made it look, while also translating Nagabe‘s whimsical storytelling in a fascinating way.
For those unacquainted with the source material, The Girl From the Other Side follows a young girl with a unique blessing, living with a mysterious parental figure whose appearance is a dashing yet grotesque mix of gentlemanly and animalistic; if that sounds similar to The Ancient Magus’ Bride, it’s worth noting that both series run under the same publisher, and that they’ve collaborated to the point of holding joint events. Don’t take this as an implication that it’s a mere copycat, though: the carefully rough drawings that don’t depict events so much as they suggest them, Nagabe’s curiously cinematic sense of composition — similar to Tsutomu Nihei’s, although with less of a focus on sweeping vistas — and the perfect balance of idyllic and unsettling atmosphere make The Girl From the Other Side an experience like no other.
And for all its abstract, poetic beauty, the series is also excellent in down to earth ways. The intriguing plot moves faster than you’d expect and makes sure to always hang the next mystery in front of the reader to keep pushing them forward, meaning that you’re likely to read all the available chapters as soon as you start reading it. The whole conceit of its setting — a world split into a white Inside where civilization hides and a black Outside inhabited by cursed creatures whom you must not come in contact with — is used for some of the most on the nose criticism of the arbitrary cruelty of xenophobia, while remaining internally coherent as a dark fairytale.
If you truly want to capture the charm of something this unique in a different canvas, then rebuilding it and finding new ways to evoke those feelings can often be the most efficient way to move forward. And that’s exactly what the staff behind this short film did. The deliberate ambiguity of Nagabe’s storytelling relies on the black and white palette of the comic, turning a limitation into one of his main assets. His controlled ink chaos couldn’t have been replicated with standard monochrome animation, let alone with the exuberant colors we got in the end. Instead, and since a large-scale adaptation wasn’t in the cards anyway, the main creative duo behind this short film opted for ditching dialogue altogether and condensing the basic premise into 10 minutes that hint at narrative beats without speaking them out loud. A very different path to reach that same feeling of uncertainty, resulting in something that both fans and newcomers can appreciate — as shown by their decision to bundle it with the latest volume of the manga, but also screen it in film festivals all over the world.
So, who’s that couple of artists we can thank for this work, then? Their names are Yutaro Kubo and Satomi Maiya, and I’m not being overly reductive when I say they deserve a ton of credit here; not only did they direct, 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, and write this piece together, they also animated and painted so much of its characters and world that other artists were credited as assistants rather holding those roles normally, good as their contributions might have been. If you’re into Japan’s independent animation then those names are likely familiar, as both Kubo and Maiya are indie scene darlings; graduating from the country’s most prestigious and selective program for alternative animators put the spotlight on them, and then they made sure to live up to that promise with their first professional works — very often together, since they realized that their styles balanced out perfectly.
Fully aware of that compatibility, when Kubo got the pitch for this project he pondered if he could work with Maiya again… which led to the producer asking if it would be alright to simply direct the short film together, sharing responsibilities to an unusual degree. Both of them were up for the challenge, and seeing the result, it’s no surprise to hear that they’d love to tackle more projects in this way. The two directors represent the dichotomy at the heart of The Girl From the Other Side. Maiya’s painterly style and fondness of pastel colors fit the idyllic appearance of their daily life and Shiva’s incorruptible soul, whereas the wild everchanging strokes in Kubo’s animation are the perfect embodiment of the terror of the curse that threatens those. Without words, the directors were able to capture the most important aspects of this work; most notably, the yearning for touch of a loved one and the pain it causes the both of them to have to avoid it at all costs, which only makes the authentic tactility of the nightmare where another cursed creature touches her more chilling.
All things considered, The Girl From the Other Side is a success very much unlike what we’ve come to expect from studio WIT, both in terms of the scope of the project and the actual style of the work… but wait a moment, is this actually the WIT we know?
Now this is where the original plans for this piece went off the rails, the actual reason it took longer to publish than expected. I was ready to call it a day having sung the praises of this beautiful OVA, but investigating its production more in detail, it’d feel incomplete to leave it at this. For everything I’ve said about The Girl From the Other Side‘s short film being mostly the labor of love of two independent creators, the thing that stands out the most when checking the credits is that this is the first official credit for studio WIT’s new branch. It’s a work meant to set the tone for their future.
Back in Spring 2018, WIT casually announced that they were opening a new sub-studio in the Ibaraki prefecture, located in the city of Tsukuba. That was, in and of itself, not all that remarkable. As we’ve said before, there’s a very noticeable trend in the industry to open subsidiaries, pseudo training facilities, and the likes in the (relative) outskirts, essentially copying the model of the modest successful anime studios. Stepping away from Tokyo reduces costs and allows them to gather local talent, scarcer as it may be, more easily than in the capital where the concentration of animation companies is simply ridiculous. On top of that, WIT has ties to that specific prefecture; a handful of the studio’s core members were born and raised in Ibaraki and the studio has held events there for years, so there’s already kind of an emotional bond that’s bound to solidify since this new studio plans to actively involve itself in local cultural events.
WIT Studio Ibaraki wasn’t born to promote a specific Japanese prefecture, though, even if they’re bound to produce some neat animated commercials at some point. The first goal they stated is a familiar one: creating a WIT sub-studio with the specific intent of training young artists, and thus address one of the most insidious problems in this industry. As nice as that sounds, however, it’s hard to blame anyone that reacts to such claims with cynicism; though success stories like White Fox Izukogen exist, those are by far outnumbered by instances where those words have led to absolutely nothing, be it due to a failure to implement effective mentorships or because it was a shallow PR statement in the first place.
Fortunately, there are reasons to be very optimistic here. Not just due to the way they’ve planned the studio’s operations — working in the sidelines with smaller projects and assistance tasks, without WIT’s usual need to deliver work ASAP — but also because of the person who’s heading them: Masaaki Tanaka. WIT Studio Ibaraki’s chief animator is much younger than we’re used to when it comes to people undertaking mentorship roles, but that hardly seems like a problem here. Tanaka himself is one of the greatest success stories of the Animator Dormitory, a renowned program meant to offer not just affordable housing but also create a healthy environment for artists to hone their skills. As a testimony of its success, Tanaka quickly grew to be a reliable supervisor and ace animator with the entire fate of some projects resting on his shoulders, while also allocating time to his more personal projects. And now he faces his next goals: keep progressing as a creator by tackling directorial duties, as well as guiding youngsters in a similar position that he was not that long ago.
Although he didn’t have to participate in the production of The Girl From the Other Side, Tanaka has already left his mark in Ibaraki — and that’s without accounting that he graduated from Tsukuba’s university. While this OVA is the studio’s official debut as animation producers, they’ve been doing important assistance work here and there, such as 2018’s Pokémon the Movie: The Power of Us. While billed as a studio WIT co-production, the truth is that the operations outside Pokemon‘s usual OLM studio were mostly conducted by the crew that was forming this Ibaraki branch. Making good use of his versatility, Tanaka served as the movie’s main animator and provided dense effects and debris, down to earth acting, and also more exaggerated character cuts that happened to inhabit the three-dimensional environments in a neat, believable way — a type of shot that both WIT and OLM’s studios have been exploring in recent years.
While Tanaka commanded the operations from within the animation team, the management behind the scenes was in the hands of the other individual who stands as co-leader of WIT Ibaraki: Kenta Yamada, the new animation producer entrusted with this branch of the studio. Despite having only joined the studio 5 years ago and having spent most of that time on unglamorous — although essential — production assistance tasks on projects like Rolling Girls and Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, his career is making quite the jump as he’s now in charge of coordinating a sub-studio’s projects and gathering their staff. Perhaps it’s because he showed that much promise and his efforts were rewarded… or perhaps it’s because he’s also from that prefecture. Possibly both.
Truth to be told, there is no point in speculating about what to expect from this young duo leading the sub-studio, because WIT has been very honest about their goals. If the first one referred to the what — strengthening local ties and training up and coming creators — then the next one refers to the how. Revving up the studio’s engine by co-producing a Pokemon movie wasn’t a random choice: WIT Studio Ibaraki aims to produce all sorts of animation aimed at children, a goal that shows a great understanding of what the rearing of talent in this industry has traditionally been like. For the longest time, anime’s most brilliant creators spent the formative stages of their career working on kids shows, which offered safe environments for them to experiment and find their own voice; although the pressure not to upset merch manufacturers and the likes was also there, these titles where imagination is king and feelings are presented without subterfuge were the perfect training grounds for good reason.
Since the industry’s efforts have been trending away from this type of project, greenlighting fewer of them and generally making them low priority when they do, seeing a new player focused on this space feels like a welcome change of pace. Sure, WIT Studio Ibaraki will never be a major entity capable of reversing that overall trend, but their sort of partnership with OLM is already leading to some striking work in anime children can enjoy. Besides all that beautiful Pokemon work, Tanaka has also shown up to supervise certain episodes and animate cool stock footage for the ongoing Kedama no Gonjirou series… though to be honest, WIT’s most memorable contributions to that show are the unique sequences by alternative artists that animation producer Yamada has been contacting. The catchy ending sequence is nothing but wool threaded together by director Tomoki Misato, another Geidai alumnus who specializes in stop motion animation using hand-crafted materials.
A similar approach was taken to a whole other level in episode #20B of the series, which makes the unique craft narratively relevant by transporting the characters to a felt nightmare they don’t know how to escape. Behind that curious segment, there was none other than the UchuPeople duo — also of Geidai origins — who went viral because of their contributions to Pop Team Epic like Let’s Pop Together; similarly to those cases, Onohana storyboarded, directed, drafted, edited, painted backgrounds, and drew the 2D animation for the episode, while Kazushige Toma was in charge of all the puppetry and filming. If stop motion knit puppetry isn’t your thing, WIT Studio Ibaraki’s contributions to the series also include work like episode #14’s Momotaro parody, made all the more authentic with its textured, scroll-like illustrations. These were made by another team of independent artists invited by Yamada, led on this occasion by Akino Fukuji… whom yes, you guessed right, graduated from the Geidai program too.
At this point you might be wondering that, if the studio’s point was to train a new generation of WIT creators under Masaaki Tanaka’s animation leadership, how come that many of their highlights come from outside independent artists? This is where we introduce the final WIT Studio Ibaraki goal, and where things loop back to The Girl From the Other Side. As mentioned in the very first announcement, this new WIT branch also focuses on the production of short films, and to do so, they’re giving a platform to independent artists who don’t normally get an outlet in the anime industry. In fact, if you’re not an avid follower of Japan’s indie scene, the only reason you might have heard of these artists we’ve been introducing is the aforementioned Pop Team Epic, which also featured the work of many ex-Geidai students. While ultimately WIT wants to train their own young artists, the fact that they’ve built a space where they can grow alongside extraordinary independent creators is positive for all parties involved.
So, at the end of the day, what does this mean for studio WIT as a whole? If you’re expecting an outright revolution, keep in mind that Ibaraki is only one of four branches, most of which bounce around locations so much that even its website is amusingly out of date; its first and second sub-studios have been consolidated into WIT headquarters, Studio 4 (The Ancient Magus’ Bride, Vinland Saga) recently moved and changed its name to WIT Kichijoji Studio, and we’ve been hearing whispers that the company plans more meaningful divisions in the future. Unless a change of leadership happens at a higher level, it’s unlikely that the studio’s actual problems — chronically bad schedule management, unhealthy work attitude — will be reduced… and yet it’s hard not to be optimistic about this new branch of theirs, which is already yielding positive results.
They might not have a huge impact on the studio and its IG Port conglomerate, let alone the industry as a whole, but studio WIT already has its new dream factory operative.
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