It’s time to catch up once again with FGO: Babylonia‘s consistently spectacular yet not always fulfilling production to highlight how episode #18 knocked it out of the park. Let’s tackle the directorial debut of an animator whose work feels grandiose without neglecting the close & personal!
Key Animation: Naoya Takahashi, Itsuki Tsuchigami, Naoki Miyajima, Tadayo Sawai, Kosuke Kato, Weilin Zhang, Kazuto Arai, Taishi Kawakami, Eri Irei, Toshiyuki Sato, Nakaya Onsen, Hironori Tanaka, Kerorira, Shouta Iwasaki, Moaang
It’s been quite a while since we last dove into Fate Grand Order: Babylonia, but truth to be told, it hasn’t offered many surprises since then. Mind you, that’s not necessarily a bad thing: when you’ve been blessed with one of the best lineups of young creators one could hope for in this industry, as well as favorable conditions so the whole lot of them can put together some of their most polished work to date, sticking to the same formula is hardly an awful idea.
That does mean that it’s been suffering from the same issues as before too, but those were never something that one would expect to be addressed halfway through the broadcast; FGO: Babylonia‘s main problems are structural, having more to do with decisions taken by higher-ups before the production began in earnest than with the excellent work people in the trenches are doing, so it’d be foolish to expect them to get fully solved at this point. The result is a TV series that’s not particularly interesting on its own and offers very little emotional resonance
– as the protagonist of this piece would say, though with harsher words – but that has consistently been able to turn every cool moment in the source material into something that existing fans and people predisposed to love anything Fate-related (approximately half the population of Earth by my own estimate) would be wowed by. In fact, it’s got so much raw sakuga energy to spare that it’s even put together standout sequences out of lesser skirmishes that diehard fans didn’t remember. A big achievement, no matter how you slice it.
Amidst the constant stream of spectacular animation, the moments that have managed to stick with me the most have often been more subdued. For all I’ve said about the show’s core issues being something that no one could outright solve, that doesn’t mean individual teams haven’t tried to address them somewhat, being fairly successful in some instances. Episode #12, led by episode director/storyboarder/animation director Satoshi Furuhashi and his co-supervisor Taiki Konno, did such a good job mixing and matching moods that it made the usual lack of character even more apparent in retrospect. At times it felt as if the team was directly channeling their Yama no Susume experience, and yet that wasn’t at odds with the awe-inspiring depiction of the Netherworld and a certain deceivingly imposing goddess. Moments like this aren’t unusually inspired directorial touches just because they look cool, but also because they’re deliberately upsetting to watch, which is a more daring relationship with the audience than FGO: Babylonia tends to have. Even Ishtar, who already stands out as one of the positive characterful exceptions in the series because her demeanor just asks for fun animation, got a further boost with this team’s refreshing approach. Major props to Ryo Imamura for departing from the design sheets for this deranged shot of her face as she’s about to blow her way into hell, which might be the greatest showcase of how reckless she is.
After a satisfying end to the Ereshkigal arc that Furuhashi’s episode set up so nicely, and after a whole lot more of admittedly cool action, the next episode that felt like it managed to actually push FGO: Babylonia to the next level was #16 – brought to us by Ryu Nakayama, an exciting budding director, excellent animator, and even better person. He managed to raise the bar when it comes to the fighting once again, but most importantly, he gave the necessary gravitas to easily the most emotional scene in the show thus far. With the inestimable help of Yusuke Kawakami – an animator who seems destined to become a director as well due to his ability to think outside the box and fixation over the atmosphere of his shots – he delivered a scene that I expect to still be my favorite by the time the show ends. Enkidu’s arc has been the best thing to come out of this adaptation, with material that can proudly stand on its own realized by the most adventurous individuals in the crew, willing to sidestep the project’s usual safety to squeeze out extra nuance; considering how important his tale is, perhaps not so much on a grand narrative level but when it comes to the themes, going an extra mile on this of all threads seems very deliberate. From the affection that the animation was able to convey despite Siduri’s beastly body to the bloodstains it left, everything about that scene is as heartwrenching as it should be.
And so, after another setup episode that’ll be best remembered for Toshimasa Ishii‘s delivery of a punchline to a recurring background gag, we reach the present with Nakaya Onsen‘s debut as episode director, storyboarder, and animation director, all while supervising the action himself too. Since doing all of that on top of key animation duties is a massive chore, he considered limiting his job to just storyboarding and animation supervision, but eventually decided to have full control over everything as that would make it easier for him to pivot whenever something inevitably didn’t go as planned during the creative process. The result is, despite many idiosyncratic artists coming to his aid, something that feels Onsen-like in and out. For all we can joke about his handsome chins being all over the episode – an improvement over the show’s designs, don’t get me wrong – the actual change that can be felt since the very first shot has a simple name: scale.
Let’s rewind a bit, though. A couple years ago, we published a piece that summarized Onsen’s career and explained what was about it that made him one of the most exciting prospects in anime altogether. And, while everything I wrote there stands true to this day, it’s no longer a complete overview of his work, since he’s kept evolving further. Onsen is still a product of a new generation of artists who put character acting at the forefront even during the most hectic action, in contrast to the previous waves of digital animators who were (way too harshly) accused of neglecting that, and all their contemporaries whom draw inspiration from Yutaka Nakamura to essentially take stick figure animation to its absolute greatest. However, Onsen has ever since then made a point to focus on action – down to writing a disclaimer that noted to producers that those are the requests he’d favor – and gradually perfected a personal style we can see all over this episode. Now, there’s no denying that you can still feel the influence of certain directors he’s worked with; the most obvious case this time being the explosion during Toshiyuki Sato‘s monumental finisher, reminiscent not just of his own work in Fate/Apocrypha #22 but of Takumi Sunakohara’s in Mob Psycho 100 II #05, both directed by the one and only Hakuyu Go. Take a broader look at the episode, though, and you’ll notice plenty of mannerisms that feel completely of his own, a direct evolution of qualities he already showed in the past.
What are those new Onsen-isms, then? I won’t surprise anyone who’s followed him over the last couple years if I say that the most obvious ones relate to space. In fact, I won’t surprise anyone who simply watched this episode either, since even the places we’ve spent the whole show at feel conspicuously more spacious this time. To this day, the most amusing example of Onsen’s tendency to massively increase the scale of a scene to give it extra oomph is his contribution to Record of Grancrest War #14; an episode that was otherwise fairly standard suddenly felt like the fate of the entire universe was a stake, as he modified the existing storyboard and ended up drawing sprawling layouts punctuated with the most intense close-ups in the show altogether. As enjoyable as I find it when Onsen kicks into someone’s else work like that and you can tell from literally the first shot that it’s quite literally a big deal, having an entire episode where everything – from the downtime and uplifting speeches to the height of the action – receives that treatment makes for a truly memorable experience. For once, the Grand in the title felt entirely earned.
I feel like this is already implied in everything I’ve been saying, but you shouldn’t be overly reductive and assume that Onsen is content with simply making everything bigger for the sake of spectacle. For starters, ever since he began getting entrusted with big fighting setpieces, he proved to have exceptional planning skills. A vision for action in the purest sense of the word. His ability to map out where every combatant is at any point during complex fights, and then being able to thread together exciting choreography that makes use of that, is an absolute delight for viewers who value positional awareness – hence why his work on Mob Psycho 100 II #11 became one of the best regarded sequences in arguably the greatest action anime of the decade. His wholistic look at action frankly put him beyond the normal position of a key animator, so it’s no big surprise that he adapted immediately to directorial roles. Incidentally, I feel like the same thing applies to the gorgeous lighting and color work that defines the mood throughout this episode; Onsen was always a storyteller in the making, so all these new responsibilities were things he already kept in mind before.
Itsuki “miso” Tsuchigami‘s workload for this episode was simply absurd without ever dropping from pure animation excellence, but I’m here just to draw attention to that Ishtar first person cut to note that Onsen drew a POV shot on miso’s aforementioned Mob Psycho 100 II #11, then got this perfect payback reversing the roles.
The last piece of the puzzle that makes Onsen’s work click so well is that, for as much as he loves pulling back the camera either to emphasize the grand-scale battlefield or to belittle individuals, he’s always going to follow that up with an extremely expressive close look at the characters. I’ve mentioned before that FGO: Babylonia has been a little too hesitant to depart from the standard Takeuchi look, to the point of downplaying the emotions of the characters despite the very strong character art and otherwise nuanced animation, but that’s not an issue whatsoever when Onsen’s at the helm. Episode #18 sports the most fierce character art – and again, the most handsome of chins – befitting the intensity of the situation. It’s a weird thing to say, but it’s as if his drawings of teeth alone conveyed exactly how much is at stake.
In that regard – as in the expressivity of the drawings, not the dental care – it’s worth noting that Onsen was well supported by other animation directors; I feel like Moaang‘s form is a great fit for Onsen’s sharp style and broad bodies, whereas Taishi Kawakami offers excellent balance and polish. Even when you factor in the assistant animation directors (like Saku, who pointed out their work was more akin to strictly key animation supervision), I feel like he surrounded himself exclusively with artists who either gel well with his style, or can counterbalance it in ways that benefit the episode. And since it’s relevant to these supervisors, let me issue another important message: bless everyone who contributed under pseudonyms with varying degrees of opacity, those who did so uncredited, as well as the one who was… credited in their uncreditedness? And you know what, bless the person who said they didn’t work on it but got credited for clean-up too, since they’re cool.
Back in late 2017, Nakaya Onsen forced all animation fans who weren’t acquainted with him to look his way, landing some of the best action sequences in an episode that immediately became a sakuga landmark. And, in the same way that the tenderness of these final moments was what stuck with me the most back then, now I have a feeling that I’ll remember his directorial debut not just for the thrilling action I loved while watching the first time through, but for these two unnamed hands tightly holding for hope.