While current anime get delayed left and right, Yesterday wo Utatte / Sing “Yesterday” for Me sidestepped all those issues by wrapping up its production early. The smart planning led to a more comfortable team and exceptionally consistent character acting that elevates the show.
Yesterday is an extraordinary series. That’s not my personal assessment of its quality, but rather a statement of fact: it’s unlike most anime projects, let alone television ones, in ways that range from curious to inarguably positive. And, within the current worldwide context, the beneficial characteristic that stands out the most is its production schedule.
Unless you successfully secluded yourself from any society and have only just now resurfaced, I don’t have to tell you that a pandemic has thrown most people’s lives into disarray. One of the admittedly less important inconveniences—unless you happen to be one of the many industry members who frankly have no idea what’s going on with their jobs—is that plenty of titles are getting postponed. That includes theatrical projects that are in some cases fully finished but are better off waiting to release at a point where people going to the theater isn’t a health hazard, as well as TV anime that are… well, TV anime.
Long running shows that actually value having a decent buffer haven’t hesitated to immediately pause their broadcasts now that there’s a very understandable reason to, while latenight ones have reacted in different ways. The more understandable committees have opted for delays for projects that would have cut it way too close under normal circumstances already, but others have opted to move forward with telework (or not) and simply hope that the roadblocks that staff members are already warning about disappear on their own. The anime-making fairies are going to be busy, I guess.
Away from all that chaos we find a select few, the chosen ones that followed the actually-not-revolutionary precept of finishing your work before it’s due. In the season preview, we already mentioned that My Next Life as a Villainess—lovely show and surprise art direction hit of the season, by the way—had been finished for a couple months, so there was no need to worry about it.
What about Yesterday, then? Character designer and co-chief animation director Junichiro Taniguchi didn’t only confirm that the production was done, but even mentioned that he’d wrapped up his job back in 2019. If you look up some more staff reactions, you might notice the show’s other chief supervisor Maho Yoshikawa has said stuff along the same lines, though she added that she was delighted that she could work with that team some more as 2020 started; considering the project’s unusual extra episodes and her comment in late February about not having drawn corrections for a while, it’s likely that they started the year by handling the final stretch.
Either way, what’s clear is that the show was produced responsibly in advance and that the staff are very happy about how things turned out. Be it the schedule that allowed them to create something they’re proud of, the fact that a project like this allowed them work with certain talented animators, or reminiscing about all the eggs they had to break as reference for a minor scene, everyone’s memories of the production are positive to a degree you rarely see in TV anime. Mind you, some deadlines were still severe, but the mere feeling of not having your back against the wall when it comes to immediate broadcasts goes a long way to make creators feel more comfortable. Cases like this are very telling of how modest the pleas of anime creators actually are: they’re not demanding to be billionaires and have an effortless job, but rather asking for fair compensation and scheduling that allows for security nets. You’d think that a crisis like this would show committee members—which actually have interests in specific release windows—the benefits of proper planning, but I wouldn’t count on capitalism learning anything.
The same smart planning that enabled Yesterday’s comfortable schedule is also the root cause of many of its other qualities. The ability to book excellent character animators as regulars who’ve grown to really understand the cast is an important one of course, but there’s something even more fundamental: the structure of the show itself. You see, Yesterday’s production committee is led by AbemaTV, a streaming platform that’s mostly based on scheduled content which may or may not bled a lot of money for CyberAgent and TV Asahi. One of their main draws is anime, hence why they secured a special deal for this series. Every episode features an extra scene at the end that’s only offered to Abema viewers, and most importantly, the standard 12 episode length will be extended by an extra 6 that will again be—at least temporarily and in Japan—exclusive to their platform.
Business reasons aside, that means that director, series composer, and scriptwriter Yoshiyuki Fujiwara has been able to restructure the material exactly as he saw fit. Without an actual opening, given the ability to attach extra scenes at the end and a non-standard number of episodes, many of the restrictions inherent to TV anime have been thrown out the window. Thanks to that, these first four episodes have all been perfectly paced character vignettes, introducing the worldview of a main member of the cast every week; as a neat way to underline that character specificity, each episode features a different ending sequence with props that belong to the person under the spotlight, as well as edited footage to create a photo timelapse effect that relates back to protagonist Rikuo Uozumi’s hobby. As a massive fan of the source material and expert when it comes to weaponizing the worries of young adulthood, I suppose it’s no surprise that Fujiwara really knows what he’s doing.
And just as importantly, he’s been able to convey that vision to the staff that surrounds him. You see, Rikuo’s worries are relatable almost to a fault. An apathetic young adult with a self-defeating attitude that could come across as a caricature of a generation more than an actual person, were it not for the care that the team has put into making sure he has an identity of his own. The slouching posture and tendency to avert his gaze fit his personality, but it’s consistent mannerisms like him scratching the back of his head that feel more arbitrarily human. And the same can be said about the other characters; the mysterious Haru moves in a more spontaneous way, with a timing to her animation that’s sometimes as snappy as the movement of the crows that accompany her, but also shifting expressions that let us peak through the cracks of her façade.
To find a good example of that humanization through the animation, you can just look at… well, the very first scene. The show opens up with around 6 minutes of expressive acting, spread over 80 shots all key animated by up-and-coming specialist Takuya Niinuma. After some training at Dogakobo, Niinuma caught the attention of many animation fans when he managed to go toe to toe with Akira Hamaguchi’s madness during the first episode of UzaMaid. And, much like Hamaguchi again, his reappearance here after going quiet for a long time—understandable given the schedule—has shown that he’s just as capable of subtle acting as he was of cartoony theatrics. As of 2020, Niinuma has left the studio to become freelance, but hopefully the early production means that he managed to squeeze in more work on that level of quality.
Regardless of future developments, his introductory scene sets the tone for the show, the characters, and even the production itself, since it demonstrates that Yesterday is a rare instance of consistent body language triumphing over everything else. In an industry that draws strength from the freedom it (supposedly) gives to individual key animators, it’s not all that often that we get shows that can maintain such perfectly consistent mannerisms across all episodes. But, thanks to the approach taken by Fujiwara and the schedule once again enabling a consistent core team that works in every episode, Yesterday’s characters always feel like themselves, rather than an artist’s depiction of that person. This doesn’t mean that the animators become entirely invisible—the articulation of top animators like the aforementioned Hamaguchi and Keisuke Kobayashi still stand out—but the consistency of the body language is never compromised. I don’t want anyone to interpret this as an attack to anime’s usual priorities, but it’s rare enough to feel fresh anytime it happens, and feels like a good fit for slow-moving narratives like this.
If the first episode shows many of Fujiwara’s triumphs—that deliberate approach to the animation he asked of the team, his ability to create pockets of intimacy to make the heartfelt conversations feel special—then the second one puts the spotlight on his best ally. Assistant series director Ryouta Itou, yet another product of Aikatsu’s directorial lineage, handled it with even more elegance than his predecessor did. And then he directed and storyboarded the third episode as well, because why not. The sensible planning has clearly allowed him to have a hand throughout the show—and even further, seeing how he recently submitted for a show slotted for fall… or at least one that was meant for it before Covid19 wrecked everyone’s plans.
Back to this show, though: one thing that you’ll quickly realize about Yesterday is that it’s not afraid to point how that its characters are wrong. It relishes the opportunities to do it, even if it doesn’t rush to do it. Fujiwara knows that, hence why he started by introducing paneled memories to the show; they’re embellished—visually and narratively—flashbacks that we see from the eyes of a certain character. By the time we switch to the next focus character, it becomes obvious they were cherrypicked and dyed with subjectivity. And the person who had to begin making that clear was Itou, who handled a second episode that’s all about Rikuo’s crush, Shinako Morinome.
The unshakable confidence that Rikuo’s eyes impose on her disappears as soon as episode #02 starts, but not in a way that feels like Itou’s humiliating the character. His framing is always very readable—just look at her lagging behind, the graveyard-looking fencing, the constant enclosing—and yet it avoids slipping into emotional torture porn. And it’s not just revealing the actual truth to previously seen events that he handled well, he also proved to excel and more immediate recontextualization; the cherry blossoms all around her go from beautiful-looking to unsettling and downright oppressive, as their link to the death of a loved one that she can’t move on from is revealed.
By the third episode, Itou goes a step further to underline how self-inflicted much of her pain is—as seen by the cherry bonsai by her window. Even her haircut, which we’ve been trained to interpret as an attempt to start all anew, proves to be a sign of the stagnancy in her life once we see she sported a similar style when she was young. Without wild theatrics, Shinako’s actual character unfolded before our eyes in a rather respectful way, and that’s in great part thanks to Itou’s work.
Everything I’ve said so far has been thoroughly positive, so where are the drawbacks? Surely if everything was this good, all viewers who crave character dramas would be showering the show with praise—but from my experience, the series is more polarizing than that. Is it that once the show moved onto the hands of other directors after those three episodes, its identity was diluted? Not at all. The fourth episode, storyboarded by Yoshiko Okuda and directed by Hiroshi Haraguchi, kept that same approach to the character animation, and recurring motifs like Shinako looking back on cherry blossoms still made an appearance when needed. So, what’s been rubbing some people the wrong way, then?
I think Yesterday is… prone to misunderstandings, and sometimes shows its age in slightly awkward ways; and no, it’s not the phones, those are good. As a series that started in the 90s, it’s way too recent to get a pass as a product of its time, but it still includes some conflicts that feel stuff we’ve left behind, such as all the back and forth on whether it’s possible for a man and a woman to simply be friends. Now, the series might eventually slap its characters and tell them that of course it is, but that leads to another issue: Yesterday is slow and in no rush to change people’s minds. If anything, the adaptation’s happy to keep viewers in the dark, as seen by Haru’s meeting with her mother being shortened from its manga counterpart to keep her mysterious persona up for longer.
For all the efficiency that the character writing gains from the character acting early on, the leisure pace of the narrative and Yesterday’s willingness to let its characters be wrong mean that it’s easy to get an inaccurate—or at least incomplete—impression and peace out after an episode or two. Although I haven’t finished the original because the anime feels like the best version of this tale we’ll get, I’ve seen and read enough to feel that this isn’t a love triangle between a self wallowing dude who deserves our pity and two girls who exist for his sake. They all have agency and (admittedly convoluted) nets of relationships of their own, and yet I can’t blame anyone who assumed this was yet another instance of a rather tired setup, or thought the juvenile worldviews of certain characters were the work’s actual thesis. When it comes to such a slow series, and considering it has some genuine writing slip-ups, there’s no point in powering through it if the start frustrated you too much. With the world being what it is right now, the last thing anyone needs is getting mad at cartoons.
If you’re in the mood for some character drama with exceptionally deliberate animation, though, I feel like it’s worth a try. And if you simply want some current anime, you won’t have many more options anyway, because Yesterday was smart enough to avoid stressing its creators with the inescapable doom of an impending broadcast. I’m sure we can all appreciate that part.
Key Animation: Takuya Niinuma, Keito Oda, Miki Mutou, Tomoya Atsumi, Asami Aida, Hiroaki Otsuji, Mai Watanabe, Momoka Yano, Yusuke Yamamoto, Masaaki Yamano, Natsuko Fujiwara, Kenji Sawada
Storyboard: Ryouta Itou
Episode Direction: Shinichirou Ushijima
Chief Animation Director: Junichirou Taniguchi
Animation Director: Miki Mutou, Momoka Yano, Keigo Nagao
Chisato Kikunaga, Masayoshi Kikuchi, Hitomi Kaiho, Michiyo Sugawara, Sayaka Ueno, Yuuko Ikezoe, Fu Zi Cheng
Key Animation: Nichika Ono, Tomoya Atsumi, Daisuke Shikado, Hiroaki Otsuji, Yusuke Yamamoto, Keigo Nagao, Akira Hamaguchi, Shinya Fujita, Takeshi Osame, Daichi Nakajima, Shun Sawai, Miki Mutou, Momoka Yano, Keisuke Kobayashi, Asami Aida
Storyboard, Episode Direction: Ryouta Itou
Chief Animation Director: Junichirou Taniguchi
Animation Director: Natsuko Fujiwara, Tomoya Atsumi, Mai Matsuura, Masaaki Yamano
Chisato Kikunaga, Masayoshi Kikuchi, Hitomi Kaiho, Michiyo Sugawara, Sayaka Ueno, Yosuke Takayama
Key Animation: Morimori, Mizuki Kokubu, Gou Otsu, Miho Arai, Takeshi Noda, Zakoani, Kazuma Nakao, Mariko Kubo, Takahiro Yamakita, Takeshi Osame, Shigeki Iwasaki, Asaoka, Naomi Ogiue, Mani Inaga, Hiroaki Otsuji, Moe Matsuda, Key-kun, Shun Sawai, Masashi Karino, Akira Hamaguchi, Hiroaki Kamitani
Storyboard: Yoshiko Okuda
Episode Direction: Hiroshi Haraguchi
Chief Animation Director: Maho Yoshikawa
Animation Director: Masaaki Yamano, Mariko Kubo, Keigo Nagao, Noritaka Tateguchi,
Chisato Kikunaga, Masayoshi Kikuchi, Hitomi Kaiho
Key Animation: Tsubasa Tanaka, Daichi Nakajima, Yoshihiro Togo, Yuuya Uetake, Tomoya Noguchi, Hiromi Nanbu, Hiroaki Otsuji, Daisuke Shikado, Shinya Fujita, Aruchau, Asami Aida, Kouya Izumi, Naomi Ogiue, Mani Inaga, Peach, Ayako Ooki, Key-kun, coge, Mariko Kubo, Hirohiko Sukegawa, Tonmoh, Erika Kawakami, Hiroshi Haraguchi
Erika Tsutsumi, Nayu Tanaka, Yui Kurose, Miki Matsuo, Hajime Umeki, Akiai Tohaya