Anime isn’t escaping unscathed from these turbulent times, so we’ve got a bit of a special season preview: focused not just on the new Spring anime that look like the most interesting gatherings of talent, but also those best prepared to weather the storm and avoid falling apart.
BNA: Brand New Animal (PV)
Director: Yoh Yoshinari
Animation Character Designer: Yusuke Yoshigaki
Chief Animation Director: Naoki Takeda
Action Director: Hiroyuki Imaishi
Art Director: Masanobu Nomura
Concept Art: Genice Chan
Kevin: While it’s hardly anyone’s first worry in the current worldwide crisis – and it shouldn’t be – there’s no denying that COVID-19 has impacted the anime industry, even more so than people seem to realize. The multiple broadcast delays over the last season (including some that didn’t specify the cause) and outright postponing one of the biggest Spring titles in the form of Re:Zero Season 2 are far from the only effects this has had on anime. Keep in mind that 90% of anime’s so-called minor animation tasks, from in-betweening to painting, are estimated to happen overseas. And those tasks are precisely concentrated in the countries that were hit early into the pandemic, leading to a bunch of support studios pausing operations. Even in Japan itself, the current uncertainty is throwing a wrench into many plans.
TV anime projects, which have tight schedules at the best of times, aren’t exactly equipped to handle something like this situation – with a few exceptions to prove that rule, that is. It’s not as if those productions have come up with revolutionary ideas to address this situation. For one, we’ve got the few lucky titles that have been granted unusually forgiving schedules, or at the very least started early enough that the current crisis won’t put too much extra burden on them. While it’s not a super ambitious animation effort, My Next Life As a Villainess is at no risk of falling apart because of this, as they actually finished the series a couple of months ago; so early they had the wrap-up party before the government told people that maybe it’s for the better not to have parties.
Even in cases where the staff doesn’t have a healthy production buffer or outright finished work like that, there are some teams that are simply better at tanking anything you throw at them. It may be a directorial style pushed from above that does wonders at hiding cut corners, a robust animation team, or simply a veteran crew that’s so used to fighting against unreasonable deadlines that they’ve gotten very good at that.
So, where does BNA: Brand New Animal land among all those options? The truth is that it checks nearly every field that could make it a positive exception. Although Yoh Yoshinari’s style is demanding since it’s built upon constantly lively cartoony acting, he’s also a beast capable of handling an impossible amount of work by himself. Of course, it helps that he’s surrounded by staff attuned to his needs, as many of them got into animation because of Yoshinari’s works in the first place. The director’s had most of TRIGGER’s assets at his disposal as the project was slotted neatly between PROMARE and future works, and the results speak for themselves: Netflix Japan dropped 6 finished, perfectly polished episodes ahead of the broadcast. Even with the least optimistic reading of the situation – BNA being so ahead because they want to move on to SSSS.Dynazenon and perhaps something else (perhaps Shuhei Handa-related if he didn’t leave with Natsume again?) – it’s nearly impossible to imagine this show’s production taking a big hit. In a season where every prospect looks somewhat risky, BNA offers some well-needed stability.
Good news about its health as a project, though, what is it about BNA that makes it so interesting? To put it simply, it’s an amalgamate of Everything Trigger, but in a way that doesn’t come across as derivative or too self-indulgent. Kazuki Nakashima drops us in the midst of a mystery, as Michiru Kagemori tries to find out the reason why she turned into an anthropomorphic tanuki, while grappling with the beastmen’s literal dog eat dog society and humanity’s tradition of being racist assholes.
To make that pitch even more intriguing, that TRIGGER-ness is manifesting in all sorts of ways. The aforementioned Yoshinari continues one of the smoothest transitions from ace animator to brilliant director, building yet another world where his smooth effects and amusing acting feel right at home. By his side is reliable character designer Yusuke Yoshigaki: not only one of the most underrated animators by audiences at large, but also a candidate to anime’s greatest goofy crowd artist, meaning he was the perfect choice for BNA’s diverse setting. To complete the very robust animation team, we’ve got Naoki Takeda – who’s proved his quality even in the unlikeliest scenarios – as the chief supervisor, plus the one and only Hiroyuki Imaishi as the action director. The latter is a much safer bet here, where the studio prioritizes the project and the animators on the project understand his idiosyncratic timing and poses, than he ever was on the likes of Darlifra.
That neat mix of TRIGGER qualities continues with the rest of the aesthetic. The contrasting greens and reds of the palette and stylized backgrounds land somewhere between PROMARE’s neons and LWA’s more pastel look. Even the studio’s desire to reach overseas had some major effects, most notably in the form of Genice Chan’s role as the concept artist and animation director for the enchanting ending sequence produced by Vancouver studio Giant Ant. In summary, an obvious must-see for fans of the studio’s output, and still a very attractive offering for people with no strong feelings about them.
Yesterday wo Utatte (PV)
Director, Series Composer: Yoshiyuki Fujiwara
Assistant Director: Ryouta Itou
Character Designer, Chief Animation Director: Junichirou Taniguchi
Chief Animation Director: Maho Yoshikawa
Art Director: Tetsuya Usami
Photography Director: Takafumi Kuwano
Kevin: For all of BNA’s ostentatious qualities, if you’ve been paying attention to pre-release materials, then you might have realized a certain other title has been showcasing arguably even more impressive craftsmanship. One that’s caught many trained eyes despite everything about the project being very understated.
Yesterday wo Utatte is an adaptation of a manga that began in the 90s and ended half a decade ago, and was never hugely popular despite mangaka Kei Toume’s dedicated niche. It’s a slow burn romance with a cast mostly comprised of young adults, dealing with grief, dreams, plus a whole lot of awkward relationships and unrequited love. It wields stagnancy as a weapon and isn’t concerned with having tangible narrative developments. Even its quirkiest main character is rather down to earth by anime standards.
If you’re thinking that something like that has no business becoming a TV anime, then you’re correct. And yet, here it is, not only getting an adaptation but a very thoughtful one. Although series director Yoshiyuki Fujiwara is known for much more energetic works like Engaged to the Unidentified and GJ Club, he jumped at the chance to work on a series he’s loved since his student days, and he appears to have done a great job with the more serious material; perhaps unsurprisingly so, considering how much he sharpened the daggers that New Game! hides under its colorful clothes.
What isn’t new for Fujiwara is working alongside Dogakobo’s character acting experts, whom he’s directing towards much more realistic animation – and they’re already delivering in spades. It’s extraordinary work on a technical level, but its greatest triumphs are in details like immediately establishing a consistent body language for the characters that fits their personality, something that not even the source material managed to pull off. While some other aspects about the execution are rougher around the edges – for every shot where the art direction and compositing nail that realism-in-animation feeling there’s another unnatural one – I encourage people to check out the first episode at least.
Will it maintain that level of quality after that? It’s a very high bar they’ve set for themselves, but this is another production with a very healthy buffer of finished episodes. Part of that comes down to the fact that it’s actually longer than your standard seasonal show at 18 episodes, but truth to be told, even that raises my confidence in the project. If they’re willing to push for a non-standard number of episodes via streaming shenanigans because they’re that invested in pacing a kinda old niche series properly, that only tells me the staff means business.
Kevin: As I mentioned earlier, being smart and planning things ahead of time isn’t the only way to put together a TV anime production capable of surviving troublesome situations like this. Some directors are akin to magicians, experts in distracting their audience with neat hand gestures so that they don’t notice the mundane tricks that create the illusions. That’s something Mamoru Hatakeyama has proved over and over that he’s capable of, to the surprise of no one acquainted with his resume; having matured at a studio like SHAFT where economical craft becomes an art in and of itself, and then moved to an almost equally messy workplace like A-1, Hatakeyama has doctored in putting things together with little resources and time.
To find an example of that, look no further than… well, Kaguya-sama’s first season: a show put together by a relatively small team, without many of the studio’s big names as they clearly deemed it a low priority title, and yet one of the most accomplished adaptations I’ve seen in recent times. Hatakeyama’s solemn staging and his experience with wacky romcoms made him the perfect director for Kaguya-sama’s mix of outrageous escalation and genuine heart. His small but constant additions to thread together gags more cohesively than the manga, as well as the contributions of a core team so dedicated they even made up silly supervision roles – from airplanes to Fujiwara’s rapping – led to an adaptation that made much higher profile projects blush.
Slightly over a year later, the series is already back. Rather than get stale, the arc they’ll be tackling this time around happens to be the perfect embodiment of Kaguya-sama, with outrageous escalation of the mindgames leading to a sweet, grand finale that ambushes every fan and melts every heart. Some things in the anime front have admittedly changed a bit. Character designer Yuko Yahiro has stepped away from the chief supervision rotation due to her recent maternity, as has Takashi Torii, one of the highest profile animators in the project and the person responsible for some of its funniest bursts of animation. If anything, the schedule only seems to be tighter this time around too. Should we worry, then? Again, I don’t think so, as Hatakeyama’s magic never fails to make the absolute best out of the resources he’s got. Now let my faith be rewarded with the second coming of excellent dancing Chika content, since Naoya Nakayama’s output on KoiAs as main animator was suspiciously scarce and he appears to be involved with Kaguya-sama again.
Kevin: The Millionaire Detective Balance:UNLIMITED feels like one of the so-called prestige picks of the season. After all, it’s a reimagination of Fugou Keiji, a novel written by the racist jerk acclaimed author who also inspired The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Paprika. And speaking of the former, this show happens to be directed by Hosoda’s most renowned pupil: Tomohiko Ito, a director so capable that his reputation can endure all the divisive projects that somehow end on his lap. Truth to be told, though, it’s no illusion of prestige what draws me to the project, but rather the dynamic it promises between the main two characters; if you’re a fan of good cop vs bad cop, wait until you hear about idealist justice-loving cop vs asshole rich detective.
Following this preview’s theme of new titles likely to endure the current storm, The Millionaire Detective also comes across as a fairly safe bet. Although no staff members have fessed up on their production buffer, it’s hard to imagine Ito getting less than ideal treatment considering how much he means for Aniplex. And, even if things take a turn for the worse, Keigo Sasaki’s presence might come in very handy. Sasaki is in many ways an ideal TV anime designer: his style is eyecatching even when he’s not relying on eccentric ideas nor heavy linecounts, and his characters can emote very convincingly with a couple of pencil strokes – anime-friendly work even more so than they are animation-friendly. With capable people like that on the lead and an amusing premise, The Millionaire Detective is an easy preemptive recommendation.
Kevin: Speaking of easy recommendations, here comes the show I’m most confident will turn out to be exceptional. Maybe even an all-time great in anime character dramas – which sounds like a bold claim, but since I already consider the preceding season to be, I have little reason to doubt its quality… to a point.
My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU aka Oregairu has always been an excellent character study, one of those rare shows about adolescence rather than just featuring teens. Wataru Watari is a daring writer who’s shown his willingness to challenge his main characters and audience alike, but when it comes to anime, it feels like he didn’t receive the acknowledgment he deserved for that until the broadcast of Oregairu’s second season. And, to be perfectly fair, I don’t think anime viewers can be blamed for that; the first season was an extremely barebones production that felt confused about its goals, failing to emphasize poignant moments and thus coming across as self-indulgent as often as it felt insightful. Functional, but just barely so.
As if to show how much of a difference the delivery can make with the exact same message, the new team behind Oregairu S2 blew the previous season out of the water so fast it hadn’t even gotten to the new material yet; its quick recap prologue increasing the gravitas of every old scene it summarized felt like they were outright flexing on the predecessors. The massive aesthetic improvements were welcome, but the most substantial change right off the bat was the awareness. Oregairu S2 was much more focused, always understanding what it was doing, allowing it to cut much deeper.
For that we can thank series director Kei Oikawa, perhaps one of the most undervalued project leaders in the industry. It’s not as if people don’t love his works, mind you, but there’s a curious tendency to take his excellence for granted, as he’s been blessed with projects so appetizing that people assume would have been good regardless. He’s not a director of flashy quirks in the first place, and even his recognizable aesthetic points – those warm sunsets! – exist entirely in favor of his less tangible character goals, like building genuine togetherness, creating spaces where it feels like the characters feel truly comfortable with each other. It’s sometimes hard to point your finger exactly at what he’s doing so well, but when you compare two shows with the exact same writers like Oregairu S1 and S2, you realize few directors engage with source material as thoughtfully as he does.
Oikawa’s added level of nuance was boosted even further by a team of main animators with two clear standouts: Tetsuya Takeuchi and Ryo Araki. Master and pupil, the poster children of distinct character animation style that articulates human gesture even beyond what we see in real life, but keeps the charm of animation with the slightly snappy rhythm to those moves. The two of them worked in nearly every episode, nearly every key scene. And even when they didn’t, their influence was so substantial that other animators in the team tried to mimic that style somewhat, giving Oregairu S2 a very clear animation identity.
Considering the excellent synergy between the staff and this work, it was a relief to see Oregairu S3 brought back as many of those creators as possible; it’s worth noting that original series composer Shotaro Suga tragically passed away right before Oregairu S2’s broadcast, but even then they made an effort to maintain the team that worked so well by promoting Keiichiro Ochi, the most active individual scriptwriter for season 2. The rest of the core team is also returning… is what I’d love to confirm, but they’ve been strangely cagey about the whole situation. Barely any new footage has been shown, and there’s no official indication that those main animators will reprise those key roles. This isn’t to say that they won’t return – Araki feels like a given considering his rather light schedule as of late and the strong bond with Oikawa – but that opacity even made me wonder if the entire series was going to get pushed back.
At the end of the day, my doubts about Oregairu S3 come down to whether it’ll be one of the best of its kind, or just very good. Whether it’ll land the ending with the same brilliance that the series built up to it, and whether it’ll be blessed by the consistently excellent character animation that humanized its cast so well or if that will be limited to a few stunning highlights. A quality dilemma to have, but when a work’s ceiling is so high, it’s hard to stop yourself from hoping for the absolute best.
Kevin: Now here’s our mandatory messy pick of the season. The riskiest one in this list, on every possible level. Gleipnir is a hyperviolent manga chockful of sexual violence that often comes across as deliberately trying to upset your average fan of hyperviolent manga chockful of sexual violence. It deals with depression and male vulnerability in a surprisingly compassionate way as often as it has panties on screen, and it switches from romantic death promises to full-body pegging – don’t ask, or ask, I don’t know – so naturally it’s hard to process. It’s one of those works that’s so transparently the author’s thing, but it’s wrapped up in such a bizarrely interesting package that it becomes hard to look away from it even as an outsider. It comes with every disclaimer in the world, but if this sounds intriguing and you want to see a berserk girl kick ass inside the hellish theme park mascot fursuit that happens to be the co-protagonist, by all means give it a spin.
If that paragraph didn’t make you run away in the opposite direction, you’ll be glad to hear about Takahiro Kishida’s work as character designer. Or rather, you’ll be glad to look at it: the sharp, attractive character art, and the ridiculously detailed clothing folds and hair speak for themselves. Admittedly, one of the downsides to his work he’s often too busy to stick around for supervision duties, and when we’re dealing with sheets this deceivingly complex, it becomes really hard to find animators capable of handling the job. Fortunately, studio Pine Jam is a hub of young animators who are equal part talented and reckless – such as Noriyuki Imaoka, co-chief animation director of Gleipnir. Coupled with the other skillful artists in the team, this production has what it takes to put together plenty of impressive work.
But I said this was a risky prospect on all levels, didn’t I? Frankly, despite the high level of skill and the fact that this has been in the works for quite a while, I don’t expect the project to maintain the level seen in the promotional videos by any stretch. Consistency has never been Pine Jam’s forte, and with some of their fastest and most reliable assets working on other titles this season – like Kanna “kappe” Hirayama, who’s lending her absolutely adorable designs to KanoKari – I doubt they’ll be any better now. Mind you, I happen to find the individual animator idiosyncrasy that’s all over their projects to be worth the sometimes rough price of admission, but beware that quality and styles might fluctuate wildly by the end of it. Hardly the element that’s gonna be most divisive about Gleipnir, though!
Kevin: Last but by no metrics least, let’s talk about Gal and Dinosaur. You might think that the title is self-descriptive, but it omits the fact that the dinosaur living with a young girl constantly makes a surprised face. A game-changer, just like the fact that this is being adapted by Jun Aoki of Pop Team Epic fame. This is once again as a collaboration between his personal studio Space Neko Company – which has connections to many fascinating indie artists – and Kamikaze Douga, who might be taking a bit of a step back as Aoi Umeki isn’t returning to co-direct the series. As if to make up for that, this adaptation is actually a dual anime & live-action project, meaning that we can also enjoy a goofy dinosaur making a surprised face in real life.
Do we actually know much about it beyond that? Not really, but that’s part of the fun when it comes to this crew and their ideas that come entirely out of left field. Even if it’s unlikely to match Pop Team Epic’s outrageous inventiveness, the original series is quite funny to begin with, and I can’t see this adaptation going wrong. Nevermind the series I’ve previously labeled as safe – if this dinosaur refused to go extinct from a meteor, no virus is going to hurt it.
As is tradition, we’d like to give some extra mentions to interesting titles before we wrap up for real. There are a few more upcoming shows we could add to that list of unusually stable productions: the second coming of i7, benefitting once again from the IP’s excellent management and the fact that ID: INVADED was politely shoved out of studio Troyca despite by all means belonging there, as well as various kids shows – Shadowverse, Kaiketsu Zorori, hopefully Mewkledreamy too – that tend to have rather different production cycles to boot. But perhaps the most interesting case is Kakushigoto, which seems to understand that Koji Kumeta‘s austere style is a great fit for very stylized animation, so they’re making something that both feels right and should be pretty manageable for the staff. It doesn’t go all the way with the aeshtetic like the gorgeous SHAFT commercial storyboarded by Shinbo himself (save for Nobutaka Yoda‘s gorgeous ending), and the project is amping up the shameless pandering for people who loved Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei… but I am one of those people, so please carry on.
But caution aside, what about other titles that simply stand out because of their neat ideas? Arte is a series dealing with similar themes Miss Hokusai, both being historical pieces that depict women’s struggles in creative spaces. But while Takayuki Hamana and Reiko Yoshida are a pretty strong team for down to earth material, this TV anime adaptation looks so run-of-the-mill I can’t really conjure the enthusiasm that the series deserves. Kind of the opposite to Priconne and Shachou, Battle no Jikan desu: two works with source material I’m not enthused about, but that look like fun adventures in anime form; in the former’s case because series director Takaomi Kanasaki is channeling some of his Konosuba energy, while the latter has Keisuke Watanabe‘s loose approach to animation. Speaking of which, here’s hoping that Wave, Listen to Me‘s outrageous animation continues past the start, because outlandish comedy lands so much better when it’s carried by equally insane animation.
Between Appare-Ranman! and Listeners, we’ve also got our quota of wildly original anime that don’t seem to have enough energy to match their premises. If I had to choose between the two, the latter being a collaboration between two writers obsessed with music but tackling it from very different angles makes it intriguing at least – though that may just be my bias with the shots reminiscent of Eureka 7 thanks to Dai Sato. You know what’s an original series that’s not likely to disappoint, though? The second season of Watanuki-san, a sitcom featuring various vtubers as actors. It may look janky, and it absolutely is, but it somehow has some of the funniest writing on Japanese TV despite being aimed solely at me and the weirdos I hang out with. Why do I get pandered to so much again?