Kaguya-sama: Love is War Season 2 01-06 – Production Notes

Kaguya-sama: Love is War Season 2 01-06 – Production Notes

Kaguya-sama: Love is War Season 2 has reached its midseason climax, and rather than take a quality hit, it’s only been getting better with time thanks to a small but inventive and very dedicated team. And this is how they did it!


To be perfectly honest, I had no real plans to write about Kaguya-sama’s second season. I’ve said my piece about the series, and rather than risk it and try to reinvent something that already worked, the sequel has mostly doubled down on what made the original series so enjoyable. With the solemn modern classic Rakugo still lingering in many people’s memories—poor forgotten Grancrest—certain reprehension prior to Kaguya-sama’s broadcast was understandable. Misguided worries of course, but I could at least understand why they might think that series director Mamoru Hatakeyama wasn’t a good fit, or that his skillset might be wasted on seemingly ordinary material, if that was people’s only frame of reference and they were perhaps a little too snobby. After the first season proved that the affinity of the team and the source material is actually exceptional, though, is there much of a point to keep singing its praises?

After finding myself highlighting the smart choices and deceptively skillful craft every week on social media, I decided that the answer was yes, absolutely. To a certain extent, the Sakuga Blog exists for titles like Kaguya-sama. Appreciation of the classics isn’t only interesting but downright necessary if you want to have a proper understanding of why Japanese animation is the way it is, and we always try to complement that with talk about the neat arthouse and independent creations on the sidelines of history, but ignoring seasonal anime entirely—like it used to be the norm for in-depth production discussion—both alienates many casual fans and ignores a whole lot of good work. There’s no denying that most TV anime is hastily put together, but that only makes the titles that sidestep their limitations or even weaponize them all the more impressive. And as it turns out, there really were a lot of viewers who were looking for this kind of production talk; some of whom we’ve pushed further down the draftsmanship appreciation hole, and others who’ve simply been learning a bit more about the shows they enjoy on a weekly basis. And on that front, I struggle to come up with a show I’ve been consistently enjoying as much as Kaguya-sama.

Right off the bat, the second season shows that it feels no remorse offering more of the same—and why should it, when both the source material and creators know how to keep it fresh? One of Kaguya-sama’s major successes as a romcom is its ability to maintain its simple conceit but iterate on it in countless ways, while the main relationships slowly but surely move forward. And, now that it’s in the hands of a very inventive and dedicated team, we could have one new season a year until the end of time and it somehow still wouldn’t get old. For all that perceived freshness, though, it’s worth reiterating that Kaguya-sama Season 2’s staff remains virtually untouched. The directorial lineup is pretty much exactly the same, as is the animation team, despite A-1 being a studio where that’s never guaranteed. In fact, one of the most noticeable changes is that the animation trainees during the first season have now started handling their own scenes, while a new batch of promising youngsters have taken their old inbetweening spots.

Leading this refreshingly familiar effort we’ve got series director Hatakeyama once again: still very involved with hands-on creative roles, and still very good at them. His defining aesthetic trait remains the constant but smartly placed close-ups, those painfully unsubtle bits of subtlety; flatly shaded snapshots of emotion that are immediately recognizable even among other creators fond of kagenashi/zenkage approaches. And yet, his greatest gift to Kaguya-sama might once again be his expertly crafted connective tissue that makes the show’s moment to moment progression so amusing to watch. The sleek flow of his storyboards even when he’s adapting the most sterile panels of the manga, his ability to take a theme from a gag and run with it, it all makes the show so immediately entertaining that it doesn’t actually matter if one punchline is weaker than usual. Not to say that the moments it builds up to aren’t rewarding, but making the journey just as worthwhile is arguably an even greater accomplishment.

For a good example of that, we’ve got the very first sequence with Hayasaka’s Mission Impossible-inspired pirouettes. Another showcase of Hatakeyama’s ability to thread together funny and appropriately themed scenes, and following that trend of returning staff, yet another outrageous moment key animated and designed by Shinobu Nishioka. You might remember her appearances in the first season anytime there was something supremely silly to animate and get specifically credited for; her field of expertise was usually Fujiwara’s nonsense, which might be why she also corrected her arrival to make the pink mass of chaos as threatening as possible. This first skit feels so immediately familiar that it’s almost as if it was originally conceived as part of episode #07 of the first season and cut at the last moment in the planning stages. Which is to say, if you enjoyed it but found it a somewhat random choice to start the season, now you know why!

Although Kaguya-sama’s animation isn’t always extraordinary, its sudden bursts are always amusing to watch and more purposeful than you might have realized. By which I mean, did you notice that the effects in that clip above spell out Chika’s name, or that her fluidity here was inspired by Nishiki Itaoka’s Cure Milky transformation since she shares voice actress with the turquoise alien?

When it comes to all these returning artists, episode #02 features one of the most interesting cases so far. As you might recall, the second episode of the original series already stood out quite a lot thanks to its crafty storyboarding heavy on the perspective switches, which enhanced the show’s ridiculous back and forth mind games and made them even funnier than usual. A year later and once again in the second episode, the exact same team returned to outdo themselves, employing similar camerawork techniques and also new visual gags that make all the ordinary, frankly petty conflicts into amusingly grandiose ordeals.

Now that’s neat in and of itself, but even more so when you realize that the person who drew those hilariously convoluted—in the best of ways—storyboards did so under an obvious pen name; obvious in its fakeness that is, because after their first appearance no one outside the team seemed to have any idea as to who it was. After experiencing more of their work, however, I’m pretty certain I’ve cracked the code. Their usage of silhouettes, the synergy with Hatakeyama, and the people they chose to surround themselves with made me air my suspicions that it was in fact Hirotaka Tokuda, whom you might know for the beastly episodes where he does more work than a single person should, as a freelance action ace, or both.

One detail had me stumped, though: Tokuda had contributed to the show’s opening under his real name, close enough to the second episode that he’d be under the same contractual situation, so why would he work under a pen name? Fortunately, Kaguya-sama Season 2’s animation producer Yuichiro Kikuchi had an answer… sort of. In one of his very informative, weekly threads about all the behind the scenes happenings for this production, he mentioned that the mysterious pen name user was indeed someone who’d worked on the series under their real name too, and simply wanted to give a try to this pseudonym thing. So, not only does that nearly confirm it was Tokuda, it also tells us that he’s as unpredictable as Fujiwara. A positive quality to have, as far as I’m concerned.

If you look at the overall trend of recurring staff members rather than observing notable individuals, though, episode #03 might be the most enlightening one instead. On paper, it’s easy to understand why it could be good to stick to a very consistent team: the staff can grow intimately familiar with the cast, enabling more nuanced depictions of their personalities. But on practice, what does that actually mean? Does it just translate into neat easter eggs, like Kaguya’s gesture at the end of the opening that avid fans know to mean that she’s suppressing her real emotions?

As it turns out, there’s more to gain than that. Episode #03 sums up Kaguya-sama’s qualities in a way that only someone who has truly grasped this work could. The visual gags accentuate the shamelessly sweet romance rather than cheapening it, and the more serious conflict has a solemnity to it that’s extremely rare to romcoms, born from the staff’s respect for these characters and Hatakeyama’s sense of staging. Episode director Yujiro Abe has barely drawn any storyboards in his career, but having done directorial work on Kaguya-sama since the first episode, his insight on the characters allowed him to visualize some of the most evocative sequences in the entire series; something that Hatakeyama himself seems to agree about, considering that this is one of the storyboards he reportedly adjusted the least. It’s almost a given that the prestigious storyboarders that surrounded Abe would put together great work, but his excellent work here shows the merits the production’s overall approach too.

Hatakeyama’s mimicry of Hanekawa and Araragi’s conversation in Bakemonogatari generated a lot of buzz, and while it is funny as a reference (as is the script cover) considering his past at SHAFT, the actual merit is how he managed to add to an iconic sequence by a legendary director rather than simply nodding towards it—the very Fujiwara-like indirect acting is what truly makes it.

After yet another showcase of pure Hatakeyama goodness in episode #04, the fifth one feels like the most unique one of the bunch. It’s not as if the staff behind it are outsiders—director Takayuki Kikuchi and storyboarder Toshiyuki Fujisawa had already worked on the show, and the rest of the team didn’t change either—but the way they let the animation do nearly all the talking is uncommon for Kaguya-sama. The amusing character art at the start sets the tone, and then Kaguya’s consultation with Kashiwagi becomes a relay of animators trying to outdo each other’s amusing hijinks; Toshiya Kouno’s deliberately unsettling depiction of Ishigami and Kazuma Tanaka’s adorable anxiety win the creepy and cute sakuga awards respectively.

But of course, the reason why episode #05’s animation feels so extraordinary is that it genuinely was—the episode didn’t follow the standard production pipeline, and once again, Fujiwara is to be thanked for that. Hidekazu Ebina is no stranger to Kaguya-sama, but this time around he took it to the next level by key animating and supervising an entire skit, as Fujiwara once again made the mistake of teaching Shirogane a basic skill. The results speak for themselves: Ebina might have gained notoriety as an action specialist, but his contributions to this series have established him as a very capable comedic animator as well. His usage of limited animation on the 3s and even 4s makes body movements themselves amusing, isn’t at odds with realistic gestures, and can even be used to depict the most true to life outburst of emotions in the whole show; if someone still thinks authenticity in animation requires fluidity, I don’t know what to tell them.

As good as his work was, you might be wondering how they got a regular contributor to the show to handle such an imposing workload, and why they did that in the first place. Truth to be told, they initially didn’t intend to, but since they’re aware that this recurring Fujiwara gag is a fan favorite and episode director Kikuchi has a lot of trust in Ebina, they ended up adjusting the entire schedule so that he could handle an abnormally large chunk of the episode mostly by himself. The staff compared the work that went into it and the splash it might make afterward to Naoya Nakayama’s special dancing ending for the first season…which is a good occasion to remind people that Nakayama is conspicuously missing after having hinted he might have contributed to the series again.

Ebina’s contributions to episode #05 even have a meta-emotive side to them, since he animated part of the previous training drills too. Turns out that Fujiwara isn’t the only proud parent.

Another element that deserves some praise is the structure of the show itself. Kaguya-sama is a collection of skits that every now and then hits an event so important it has no option but to organize an actual arc. You might think that the anime ignoring the manga’s chronology when it comes to choosing which chapters to adapt would only add more chaos to that mix, but the truth is that they’re being very careful to balance the content of each episode and make the transition between major arcs more seamless. This second season in particular has found ways to elegantly thread together 4 different skits in a single episode—something that is, according to the staff themselves, a pain in the ass—while building up to the elections arc in a very natural way.

And that leads us to the mid-season climax we’re ending this piece with: more of the same from Mamoru Hatakeyama, which we’ve already established is excellent news. Although Iino’s been a late addition to the series, the staff has gone out of their way to depict her with utmost care leading to this episode to make sure this episode didn’t fall flat on its face—and Hatakeyama didn’t waste their efforts. We first hear about her traumatic past from Ishigami, whose (performative) dislike of her strict character dyes the narration visually too, turning it into a neat comic-style sequence. But, when we hear about it from a friend of hers who experienced it even more first hand and is being honest about it, those vignettes feel much graver; two sequences where similar events flow in equally satisfying ways thanks to the usage of paneling, but with completely opposite tones. Even his comedic storyboarding is at its best, with a single panel of disinterested Hayasaka turning into the greatest presentation gag in all of Kaguya-sama.

Is it a perfect adaptation? Of course not. The production values are dipping in spots, and the immense respect that the staff feels towards the source material can sometimes backfire a little bit. Hatakeyama’s storyboarding is so evocative that the sudden swerves towards very faithful depictions of imagery from the manga can be a bit awkward; when his staging does such a great job at capturing Iino’s mental state, the way less elegant shots borrowed from the original that hammer down the same point feel out of place.

But in the grand scheme of things, those are nothing but nitpicks. Kaguya-sama continues to be one of the best romcoms out there. A labor of love by a relatively small but tremendously dedicated team has kept overperforming thanks to capable leadership and their passion for the series, even amidst a crippling pandemic; and no, unlike some luckier titles we’ve written about, they didn’t bypass the problem by finishing the production early. Even at a time where it’d be understandable for the series to drop somewhat in quality, Kaguya-sama has continued to be exactly as good as it ever was, even finding some new ways to surprise me. And we haven’t even reached the arc I like the most! Turns out that there are still cartoons that let me be optimistic, so thank you my dorky idiot geniuses.

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Episode 01

Storyboard: Mamoru Hatakeyama
Episode Direction: Tsuyoshi Tobita
Chief Animation Director: Hiroshi Yako
Animation Direction: Konomi Sato, Takayuki Kido, Satoshi Noma, Shuntarou Yamada
Prop Animation Director: Takayuki Kido

Key Animation: Konomi Sato, Shinobu Nishioka, Ayaka Sato, Yuki Kyousu, Hiroyuki Yako, Junichi Saito, Satoshi Noma, Masaru Suzuki, Yuu Takahashi, Kazutoshi Makino, Katsushi Morita, Yuuki Iwai, Takumitsu Miura, Honoka Yokoyama, Hidekazu Ebina, Miko Nakashita, Nobuhiro Okazaki, Yuu Saito, Nanami Takahashi, Keisuke Furuichi, Mayumi Uebashi, Shuntarou Yamada, Yoshio Chizaki

2nd KA: Chie Tanaka, Asami Mitsui, Kazumi Nakatsu, Daiki Takemoto


Episode 02

Storyboard: 十的一発 (Hirotaka Tokuda?)
Episode Direction: Taro Kubo
Chief Animation Director: Hiroshi Yako
Animation Direction: Takayuki Kido, Satoshi Noma, Konomi Sato
Prop Animation Director: Takayuki Kido

Key Animation: Kyouhei Yamamoto, Yukihiro Kobayashi, Chiho Fujiwara, Naoko Ozawa, Minako Yokoyama, Yui Ushio, Junko Matsushita, Miko Nakashita, Nanami Takahashi, Masato Hagiwara, Yoshihiro Togo, Yoshiko Takemoto, Yuuki Iwai, Takuro Naka, Masaya Sekizaki

2nd KA: Chie Tanaka, Yuusuke Suzuki, Satoshi Noma, Konomi Sato, Takayuki Kido
DR Movie
Kim Kwan-woo, Joo Ok-yoon, Kim Kyung-yeon, Lee Hyun-mi, Park Eun-ju, Kwon Hee-jae, Kim Hee-young, Cho Yun-seong


Episode 03

Storyboard, Episode Direction: Yujiro Abe
Episode Direction: Hiroshi Haraguchi
Chief Animation Director: Yuko Yahiro, Nishichi Yamaguchi, Hiroshi Yako
Animation Direction: Kohei Yamazaki, Rena Kawasaki
Prop Animation Director: Takayuki Kido

Key Animation: Ryoko Kawamura, Ayaka Sato, Tomoyuki Oshita, Honoka Yokoyama, Yoshitaka Sato, Katsushi Morita, Kohei Yamazaki, Nanami Takahashi, Nobuharu Ishidou, Mayumi Uebashi, Takumitsu Miura, Yuki Kyousu, Masahiro Furihata, Keisuke Furuichi, Junko Yoshikai, Rena Kawasaki
DR Movie
Lim Ji-hyun, Kim Yu-sun

2nd KA: Chie Tanaka, Kazumi Nakatsu
DR Movie
Kim Kwan-woo, Lim Ji-hyun, Kim Yu-sun, Park Eun-ju


Episode 04

Storyboard: Mamoru Hatakeyama
Episode Direction: Aya Ikeda
Chief Animation Director: Yuko Hariba
Animation Direction: Yuko Hariba, Natsumi Ishizaki
Key Animation Supervision Assistance: Takayuki Kikuchi
Prop Animation Director: Takayuki Kido

Key Animation: Natsumi Ishizaki, Satoshi Fujioka, Masaya Sekizaki, Junichi Saito, Yuuki Iwai, Takumitsu Miura, Hironobu Dannoura, Moe Suzuki, Mitsuyuki Sasagawa, Nanami Takahashi, Kaori Henmi, Shouko Suzuki, Akiko Itagaki, Kaoru Nakagawa, Takayuki Kikuchi, Yuko Hariba

2nd KA: Chie Tanaka, Kazumi Nakatsu, Yuusuke Matsui, Daiki Takemoto
Triple A
Studio Elle


Episode 05

Storyboard: Toshiyuki Fujisawa
Episode Direction: Takayuki Kikuchi
Chief Animation Director: Yuko Hariba
Animation Direction: Hayato Hashiguchi, Shuntarou Yamada, Kazuaki Imoto
Chika Training Segment Animation: Hidekazu Ebina
Prop Animation Director: Takayuki Kido

Key Animation: Emi Honda, Kanako Oyabu, Unable To Keep The Deadline, Maki Todaka, Hiroko Shigekuni, Eri Shikita, Kazuma Tanaka, Yuki Ito, Toshiya Kouno, Seren Ogura, Rieko Noguchi, Yumiko Oumae, Mao Kawaguchi, Hikaru Uchiyama, Mariko Shimamura, Honoka Yokoyama

2nd KA: Takayuki Kikuchi, Shuntarou Yamada, Natsuo Kawamura, Chie Tanaka, Shuuko Tomita, Hiroki Kishi


Episode 06

Storyboard: Mamoru Hatakeyama
Episode Direction: Kuniyasu Nishina
Chief Animation Director: Hiroshi Yako
Animation Direction: Junichi Saito, Yoichi Ishikawa, Park Ae-lee
Prop Animation Director: Takayuki Kido

Key Animation: Kazuma Tanaka, Junichi Saito, Masaru Suzuki, Yoshio Chizaki, Takumitsu Miura, Ayaka Sato, Kouta Mori, Kotaro Okazaki, Daiki Tanaka, Katsushi Morita, Yumiko Kinoshita, Mika Kobayashi, Yuu Takahashi, Keiko Motoya, Masahiro Furihata, Yoichi Ishikawa
DR Movie
Kim Hye-soo, Kim Seong-il, Park Eun-ju, Jeon Jong-min

2nd KA: Nanami Takahashi, Chie Tanaka, Takafumi Torii, Koichi Terashima, Yuusuke Suzuki, Ume Daijin, Zheng Junjie, Kazumi Nakatsu, Daiki Takemoto, Yuusuke Matsui
DR Movie
Kim Kwan-woo, Jung Eun-hee, Kim Hye-soo, Lee Hyun-mi, Park Eun-ju, Kwon Hee-jae


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giosann
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giosann

This is why I love animation.

Abraham Omosun
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Nice article. The Bakemonogatari reference in that episode was so unexpected. I swore to myself that I had seen it somewhere before and was pleasantly surprised when I found the link between the director and SHAFT. Personal question: what do you think of the production of the Kimetsu no Yaiba movie? Apart from the director (who you seem not to be a big fan of) and the coronavirus messing everyone’s schedule,what is your opinion? Do you think it will reach the highs of Heaven Feel or just come close enough? You said in your last article that they might be… Read more »