2020 has started strong with Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken, Masaaki Yuasa’s evocative love letter to the art of animation. Let’s begin exploring its equally fascinating production – origins, goals, and what the staff gathered by Science Saru is contributing to an already charming manga.
The mantra that every Masaaki Yuasa work is about love keeps getting repeated for a simple reason: it’s 100% true. And when it comes to Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, there’s no doubt that the recipient of that love is animation. Yuasa is channeling his own passion to such an extent that he’s already turned the show’s nerdy protagonist Midori Asakusa into kind of a self-insert vessel; if you think that’s an exaggeration, just compare the concept art she draws with the director’s own imageboards, because the extreme resemblance is hilarious.
But of course, a TV anime adaptation is inevitably a group effort, and the reason why Eizouken clicks so fast is that the whole crew involved shares that same love. We’ve got a mangaka like Sumito Oowara with a strong investment in the medium – and a good understanding of animation’s specific demands, as we’ll keep seeing throughout the show – plus a team that’s enjoying the chance to nerd out further every step along the way, be it by expanding sakuga culture gags in the scriptwriting stage or carefully tracing over iconic Future Boy Conan footage because they only managed to secure partial clearance to feature it.
Don’t take the specificity of those examples as a sign that Eizouken‘s love for animation manifests in very referential forms, though. While the nods are there, this is an entirely different beast from the likes of Shirobako. Tsutomu Mizushima’s approach to the subject matter was a straightforward declaration of love to the real anime industry, without shying away from its many shortcomings, and telling an endearing story along the way. Oowara and Yuasa’s take is just as charming on a character level, but instead focuses on the evocative power of animation and its nature as an extension of our vast imagination. That is such a natural fit for the director that you’d have never guessed that this entire project is kind of a happy accident born from the fact that Yuasa looked up his name on social media and realized some people said he’d be the right man for the job of adapting it. Thanks for the accidental dare, anonymous heroes.
As it turns out, the people who inadvertently suggested Yuasa to direct this show were absolutely right about it being a perfect fit. It allows him to talk about something he’s passionate about, it’s a direct continuation of familiar themes for him, and even the nearly–impossible setting that triggers the protagonist’s imagination is fully up his alley, which makes for a show that immediately feels Yuasa-like without requiring his visual flourish as a storyboarder. In that regard, it’s worth addressing Mari Motohashi‘s role as the first of many youngsters making their first directorial steps in this project – quite fitting, in a series about kids creating their first pieces of animation.
Motohashi, who had only begun storyboarding with short length episodes on last season’s SUPER SHIRO, will be making her debut on various directorial positions for Eizouken, starting by handling its premiere. The fact that most viewers seem to think the episode flowed perfectly well (with the minor exception of some transitions themselves perhaps) means that it wasn’t just Yuasa who was pleased with her handling of daily life scenes; only her inexperience with action, coupled with Yuasa’s specific vision for some of those hectic scenes, got him to provide more substantial input for those parts. In an interview with Gigazine, Motohashi noted that she sees the objective of an episode director – especially a newcomer – in the same way as that of other positions serving under the series director. Which is to say, that they should follow the project leader’s vision, hence why she made an attempt to stop her own self from leaking too much into this episode, instead trying to absorb as much Yuasa-ness as possible.
That said, she seems perfectly aware that it’s not possible for artists to fully disappear, and also admitted that she’s already developed some tastes (and distastes) when storyboarding. Inexperienced in this field as she may be, Motohashi has noticed that she’s developed a phobia of gaps, be it daunting emptiness surrounding a character or the pieces simply not clicking right. While concepts like negative space can play an important role in anime storyboards, I believe that the extra care she puts in shot composition and that inclination towards full pictures are a perfect approach for Eizouken; it’s the densely packed setting that pushed Asakusa towards adventure first and later fueled her desire to create animation, so it makes sense that even shots that would usually be emptier are chockful of information. Walking through these streets, you understand where Asakusa’s “greatest world” comes from.
Another aspect that Motohashi wanted to emphasize is something I’d call natural inefficiency. TV anime has mastered the art of taking shortcuts, to the point where everyday motions that hide a high degree of complexity are distilled to its very basics and the result still feels perfect. Too perfect, even. The truth is that, even for an action as simple as reaching out our hand to grab some food, we don’t extend it in a perfectly straight line towards our desired nutrients; be it for physical reasons (joints, clothes getting in the way) or character and situational ones (how lazy we’re feeling, our resting position), our movements tend to be much more roundabout than you see in anime. Although it obviously increases the workload, this makes directors like Motohashi go out of their way to ask the team of animators to capture how the characters would truly move at that point in time.
The effect of that philosophy is all over the first episode of Eizouken. With her long skirt and bolder personality, Kanamori’s walk cycle has a noticeably different rhythm than both her shy friend and her curious new acquaintance who’s experiencing the world of commoners for the first time. Most sequences have that extra sprinkling of reality and characterfulness… except in the case of a cartoony chase scene, which subverts that approach by making the characters move with equally robotic pathfinding abilities to make an outrageous scene even funnier; another plus to having a well-defined animation philosophy is that deliberately twisting it for a moment has a greater impact!
It goes without saying, but the reason why that approach was so successful in this case, whereas others have failed rather miserably when trying to create something like this, is that once again a lot of talented animators have gathered around Yuasa; even though some people genuinely seem to think otherwise, this extra articulation of movement we’ve been talking about isn’t as easy as just piling up more drawings, unless you want a costly production that either doesn’t register as anything special for the audience or actively gets in the way of their enjoyment with superfluous fluidity.
Fortunately, Eizouken’s powered by a wide variety of acting animation experts. The name that stands out the most is Norio Matsumoto, an industry titan of the same caliber as those brought up in the episode itself. Although it’s already been confirmed that he worked on the weighty scene with the flying machine taking off, the usage of cute shorthand designs and mindfulness of space make me wonder if he also contributed a bit to Asakusa’s childhood memories; perhaps leading to her awakening as an animation dork, much in the same way that Matsumoto’s own work did for some many sakuga fans.
Knowing that Matsumoto will keep reappearing in the show is reassuring, as is seeing plenty of capable younger animators. The Makaria duo of Moaang (this scene?) and Maring Song never seem to sacrifice quality to make an appearance in every noteworthy production; considering this doodle, he might have worked on the early sequence that embodies the episode’s inventiveness. Looking beyond them, Eri Taguchi and Ichigo Kanno are my favorite young prospects who’ve matured at Pierrot and Trigger respectively in recent years, while realism–and–beyond animator Izumi Murakami, who’s already built a solid relationship with Yuasa, occupies a similar position among Madhouse-trained youngsters. Even the latest wave of web artists is represented with Sugoroku!
For all this focus on character animators, the action and mechanical prowess in the fantasy climax also packs quite the punch – though if we look back on the aforementioned Matsumoto highlight, he once again makes it obvious that the acting/action dichotomy that fans sometimes obsess about isn’t actually real. That said, the best thing about that whole sequence might be the way they simulated watercolor painting digitally, as that’s what really makes it feel like imageboards coming to life. It’s only been one episode, and Eizouken‘s already shown such a deep understanding of both anime-specific technique and what draws us to animation in the first place. I can’t wait for the next chance to gush about it, because that will mean another episode has been released.
Storyboard: Mari Motohashi
Storyboard, Episode Direction: Mari Motohashi, Masaaki Yuasa
Series Direction Assistance: Mari Motohashi, Fuga Yamashiro
Chief Animation Director: Naoyuki Asano
Animation Direction: Tsutomu Ohno, Kenji Terao
Mechanical Animation Director: Kenji Terao
Key Animation: Izumi Murakami, Shuuto Enomoto, Sugoroku, Teiichi Katou, Norio Matsumoto, Eri Taguchi, Ichigo Kanno, Yuzu Hori, Nozomi Tachibana, Yuka Nagata, Soutarou Shimizu, Moaang, Maring Song, Yuuka Inada, Yuusaku Nagahama, Kenji Maeba
Shou Hirano, Atsuki Yamai, Junko Kai, Yu Ogasawara, Yoshie Kinoshita, Misaki Kurita
Kim Kwanwoo, Kwon Hwi-jae, Kim Hye-soo, Im Yeong-Sik, Joo Ok-hyun, Jeon Eunhui, Im Ji-hyun
Phoenix Animation Production Crew
Millimeter Animation Studio
Digital Animation: Shouko Takahata, Rodrigo Makoto Matsumura, Nick McKergow, Shinnosuke Saito, Kotomi Ota, Yumeno Hoshi, Haruno Yoshioka