It’s time to recap all the recent happenings in Fate Grand Order: Babylonia‘s exceptional production, some shortcomings of the show, but especially to admire the work of a certain animator who continues to deliver the most memorable work in the entire star-filled project.
Key Animation: Ken Yamamoto
Kaori Ito, Yoshifumi Nakamura, Yushi Hori, Kasen, Sugoroku, Minami Murayama, Aiko Komamoto, Kenichi Yamaguchi, Tomoko Hamanaka, Hayato Kakita, Naoto Abe, Iori Nonoshita, Akihiro Sueta, Katsuya Shigehara
I’ve resigned myself to accepting that Fate/Grand Order Absolute Demonic Front: Babylonia is a collection of excellent moments – sometimes a whole episode’s worth of them! – rather than an excellent show. I genuinely believe that it’s had some of the coolest television moments of the year. In fact, I’m confident that it’ll continue to have some of the coolest television moments of the next year, since very few 2020 projects should be able to stand on the same level, let alone put up a challenge for a project as extraordinary as FGO: Babylonia. Now that’s a quality problem to have, if it even counts as one.
The last time I wrote about the series it was to celebrate episode #05 for various reasons. While not the flashiest showing, the breathing room for the cast and a certain animator’s willingness to ditch the character models made it resonate with me more strongly than the first few episodes. And just as importantly when it comes to this site’s goals, it was a good opportunity to showcase the direct link between those artistic achievements and the hard work of production assistants; the obscene amount of time they pour into their work is worthy of praise in and of itself, but there’s an upsetting tendency even among industry folks to ignore that their ability to create fruitful creative environments can rival that of anime’s top directors. As people like Umehara demonstrate, they’re not glorified errand boys and girls.
Ever since that episode, the show has demonstrated both its qualities and shortcomings in spades. Despite forcing storyboarders and animators to wrestle with the often indistinct setting that makes it tricky to thread together readable and spatially interesting setpieces, FGO: Babylonia consistently features action sequences that earn the technical qualification of damn cool. This show features frankly irrelevant skirmishes with more animation punch than most anime could hope to pack, and then still manages to ramp things up when the stakes are actually high.
In contrast to those grand clashes, some directors in the team are doing a quieter job to make the smaller pieces click too. A good example would be episode #10 by Toshimasa Ishii, the show’s funniest outing to date. Over the last few years we’ve been covering Ishii’s rise in this site. His captivating style built upon his eye guidance to dial up the tension and snappy transitions that make the following reveals all the more satisfying. It’s not by chance that he’s gotten the most acknowledgment when working on dark thrillers, a register that fits him like a glove. However, his work on this series uses those ideas – and the experience he’s gained in 3D productions at Orange – in more lighthearted ways than we’re used to; Ritsuka’s frantic gaze combs the three-dimensional terrain as he anticipates a threat… and then subverts it all with the deliberately flat presentation of Jaguarman’s shenanigans, exemplifying how funny this show can be when in the right hands. Even the editing enhances the moment, further removing gravitas by cutting the sequence early.
Unfortunately, FGO: Babylonia having that much character and a solid grasp of its tone is something that we can’t take for granted. Among the many complaints I’ve seen people raise, from the protagonist being barely an entity to the aggressive sound direction, it’s the show’s poor structure that I’ve found gets in the way of my enjoyment the most. Its episodes often feel like 24 minutes’ worth of FGO: Babylonia as opposed to one cohesive whole that takes into account the viewer’s experience.
As if to exemplify that, episode #08’s capable direction – the palette being gradually drained of contrast was surprisingly unsettling – and non-stop relay of spectacular animation manages to sell the struggles and heroics of characters who hadn’t had much screen time before… until it does stop, and the episode boycotts itself with a few minutes of torture porn as the worst possible anticlimax. Whether you feel like that scene should exist at all or not, it’s hard to argue the episode doesn’t end with immense whiplash. A sad reminder that series composition is still a key duty in adaptations, especially if the gap between the mediums is so wide that we consume the narrative in fundamentally different ways.
On the flipside, existing FGO fans don’t have much of a reason to worry about this. That’s not an indictment of their taste, not even their source material: I can believe that those writing shortcomings are non-issues in the medium that Babylonia was originally meant for, so I can see why so many people signed up to watch its coolest moments depicted in the fanciest way one could expect from TV anime. And on that front, there’s no denying that this show keeps delivering. As someone with no prior attachment to FGO but plenty of experience with the franchise, the last time that this adaptation sparked my fire to write a post coincided with Ken Yamamoto depicting Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s confrontation with the rawest expressions in the whole show. It’s not a coincidence that the next episode that has managed that is Yamamoto’s first outing as action animation director.
Truth to be told, though, that credit feels like a bit of a misnomer – or at the very least, an incomplete summary of Yamamoto’s contributions to the episode. FGO: Babylonia #11 begins with his animation right off the bat, with Gilgamesh and Enkidu fighting once again… and yet a simple glance at their expressions, compared to his own rendition back in episode #05, tells you that the nature of their battles used to be very different; the latter’s deranged faces and the former’s somber expressions are gone, replaced by transparent delight in both their faces. Yamamoto has shown that he’s the animator most willing to stray away from the adaptation’s design sheets when needed, which didn’t only enhance his previous work but also led to this elegant type of emotional storytelling via contrast.
That’s not to say that Yamamoto didn’t put a lot of effort into the action itself… even in scenes you wouldn’t assume fall under that domain, like this traversal scene in the jungle with very distinct animated foliage acting as background and foreground to give depth to the shot; once again, living up to his leaf nickname. And when things get serious for real, it’s his already impressive animation pedigree that he lives up to. Don’t get me wrong: Yamamoto was the first one to thank the entirety of the team, from the in-betweening crew to the painting and compositing departments. But, when you consider that episode director and storyboarder Katsuya Shigehara had to note that Yamamoto’s action direction role was underselling his input – he key animated it essentially by himself, with over 100 cuts and the entirety of the main setpiece penned by his hand – then you start to understand why he’s receiving so much praise. Even the animator list paid tribute to Yamamoto by separating him from everyone else. Both literally and figuratively, on a level of his own.
Whether it was a deliberate decision in Shigehara’s storyboarding process, liberties taken by Yamamoto, or a bit of both, this episode reframes the action to be built around the bodies of the combatants. You might think that having a recognizable setting for a change in the form of the Temple of the Sun would lead to action sequences that integrate the environment more than usual… and you’d be sort of wrong. Save for a couple moments where the choreography plays off Quetzalcoatl’s wrestling-inspired pirouettes, the truth is that it barely plays a role – except for the obvious narrative significance, that is. Instead, the camera gets closer than ever to the characters, pivoting around them as if they were actual landmarks. They occupy the screen in full almost all the time, to the point where the only noteworthy instances of the camera taking a solid step back are to showcase the tremendous magnitude of their power. I was going to jokingly call it anthropocentric action, but considering how many deities are involved, maybe that’s not the right term.
Jokes aside, what I just described could easily turn out to be a downside; and I say this as a helpless apologist of Shigeyasu Yamauchi’s close-up heavy action sequences that most people find incomprehensible. Fortunately, normal rules don’t necessarily apply to the likes of Yamamoto, and this approach happened to play to many of his strengths. Spending this much time so close to the characters wouldn’t leave as strong of an impression if he hadn’t attained exceptional three-dimensionality to their bodies. This is especially noticeable when it comes to the faces, which simulate that volumetric feeling without even increasing the linecount all that much, simply via slight curvature to their factions that showcases his nuanced grasp of perspective. Some shots even seem to indicate that he’s taken cues from his friend Nakaya Onsen, the master of lifelike chins.
Yamamoto’s usual idiosyncrasies as a character artist, like his elongated hands and slender bodies that still feel well-defined, are in full display as well. And funnily enough, it’s those quirks that lead to what makes this such a memorable confrontation. Quetzalcoatl is a fundamentally different foe, to the point where she’s not an enemy per se; as Ritsuka eventually realizes, his goal was actually figuring out her philosophy. She’s by all means a force of nature, and it’s Yamamoto’s downright animalistic depiction of her – which I hope didn’t rub anyone the wrong way – that conveys that most clearly. Much like the asphyxiating panic in the first episode of The Promised Neverland, his delivery becomes inseparable from the content, and I already can’t imagine Quetzalcoatl animated by anyone else. Kind of a shame too, since that’s bound to happen at some point!
For all I complained about some prior episodes dropping the ball after some exceptional highlights, this episode reaches the goal just fine after Yamamoto’s explosive first half. While not as exciting, Shigehara sells the comfortable intimacy that’s grown between Ritsuka and Ishtar better than previous episodes, and Kazuaki Shimada’s Yama no Susume energy gets to shine through in some amusing sequences; as requested, I’m also extending my praise to the fact that he got to supervise an episode by himself 11 episodes into the show, a testament of both Shimada’s skill and the impeccable production schedule. Which is to say: you can safely look forward to another piece like this in the future, since the project remains an exceptional canvas for many young anime aces!