Fifteen Years of The [email protected] – Carrying a Legacy Forward to the Future

Fifteen Years of The [email protected] – Carrying a Legacy Forward to the Future

With fifteen years officially in the record books, it’s safe to say that The [email protected] has made its mark within the plethora of industries it’s now attached to. To commemorate this, we’ll be taking a much overdue look at not just the path its 2011 adaptation took to becoming a smash hit, but also the passion that made it all possible in the first place and how that connects to the series’ future.

Fifteen years ago on this day, Namco pushed its newest venture out to arcades all across Japan. Striking a chord with a niche yet passionate fanbase at the time, it would eventually morph from a core part of Japanese internet culture in the 2000’s into a behemoth property that the now Bandai Namco still relies on until this day. Make no mistake, though. The [email protected] isn’t an overnight success story. Its history is full of twists and turns, and even the road towards its 2011 anime adaptation is no exception.

As someone who’s been following this franchise for almost half of his life at this point, memories of what came before the now widely celebrated Animas remain vivid. In a particularly special twist of fate, the franchise’s first foray onto TV came in the form of Sunrise’s Idolmaster Xenoglossia, which notoriously took the appearances and names of the characters, ignored their existing personalities, and got them wrapped up in an odd story of merciless betrayal and questionable robot romance. Needless to say that, barring a young me that had just started following anime on a weekly basis during that very season and thus could find some marvel in almost anything I was watching, it was heavily panned by fans at the time. With emphasis on “at the time”, as seen by how many look back fondly on it nowadays, and even welcome its presence during events like last year’s Bandai Namco Fes.

Regardless of its reception, Xenoglossia’s approach made it the sort of show that even non-imas fans could remember. That’s more than can be said for the often forgotten or even outright unknown The [email protected] Live for You OVA, which came packaged with the game of the same name. While fun in its own right, it’s the sort of work that feels like it exists out of necessity rather than having a clear vision behind it. And that idea reflected on the franchise’s future; Animas’ announcement three years later was unsurprisingly met with excitement, but the reason behind that was a lot simpler than you can imagine in hindsight. To quote myself while listing off what shows I would be watching that season: because it’s imas. The show should never have come to be in the fashion that it did. That’s what common sense and what we’d seen up until that point dictated. Little did we know just how well the stars were about to align, though.

Atsushi Nishigori had already been making a name for himself in the years prior to this new announcement, particularly during his time at Gainax, where he served as the character designer for both Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt. It might sound like hyperbole to say that this period of his career was directly responsible for how Animas turned out, but without Masahiko Otsuka introducing him to an unnamed staff member involved with the franchise, plans for the show may never have materialised in the way that they did.

Knowing that Nishigori was an avid fan, Otsuka revealed that he had went to university with said staff member. As you’d expect, Nishigori wasted no time in asking for an opportunity to meet him and gush about how much he loved the franchise, to which he obliged. Their talks eventually lead to the idea of new adaptations, though Nishigori kept his dreams in check, suggesting to do smaller projects such as shorts and PVs. To his surprise, though, he was told that if they were going to do it, they might as well go all in. The timing of these talks couldn’t have been better for both parties, as the franchise had just reached a new turning point with the introduction of 2nd VISION, making this the ideal opportunity. imas was going to return to TV, and this time, Nishigori would be at the helm.

With the gears now in motion, the next step was gathering up a crew to work under Nishigori. And either by fate or by pure coincidence, this overlapped with the great Gainax exodus, an event that saw the studio lose almost the entirety of both its established and upcoming talent. Nishigori would have to depart from the studio regardless if he wanted to pursue this passion project, but Hiroyuki Imaishi and the aforementioned Otsuka going on to form TRIGGER played a much more vital role in the formation of what would come to be known as Team imas than anyone could have imagined at the time.

The writing was on the wall for Gainax at this stage. Yoh Yoshinari, Sushio and a slew of young hopefuls followed Imaishi and Otsuka to become key foundations for TRIGGER, whereas others opted to join Hideaki Anno at Khara. On the other end of the spectrum, there was a group that took neither of these paths, instead following Nishigori over to A-1 to assist him; this included current powerhouse animators like Megumi Kouno and Satoshi Yamaguchi, plus animator and recently turned director Ryouji Masuyama, just to name a few. People had already begun to take notice of them at their previous home, but Animas would go on to give them a platform to raise their stock even further by making them virtually synonymous with it and the franchise as a whole.

The downfall of Gainax wasn’t the sole factor behind what was shaping to be, however. A-1 itself had become something a congregation point for talent all around the industry at this time, including former KyoAni stars Noriko Takao and Yusuke “Fugo” Matsuo, not to mention Toshifumi Akai — counted here instead of along with his Gainax pals as he’d already been heavily involved with A-1’s Sound of the Sky — and Isao Hayashi, whose knack for both expressive and dynamic work would see him quickly go on to become one of the team’s aces. What’s more, it also had plenty of home grown prospects in the vein of Yusuke Tanaka and Miyuki Kuroki, both of whom would have the baton passed on to them for important roles in the series much later down the line. I’d love to list more, but we’re already verging on dangerous levels of name dropping. The important takeaway is that with all their powers combined, Team imas had officially been formed. And things may have been very different had all these factors not been positioned as precision perfect as they had.

Even with a team of this calibre on hand, there remained an important question: just how were they going to tackle this adaptation in the first place? Barring the Dearly Stars series, the original games would take place from the Producer’s point of view, acting as a stand in for the players themselves. Fans were eager to find out, but were kept on the edge of their seats right up until the show began airing, as even the PVs slyly avoided any mention of it. And then we fell for one of the greatest bait and switches of the decade.

In a bid to deceive both the 765Pro idols and the audience, its first episode is framed through the viewpoint of an unnamed cameraman who follows the cast around on their daily routines, giving the audience — non-fans in particular — and the as of yet unrevealed Producer insight into their personalities and quirks. This is all rounded off just before the big reveal, as he poses a simple question to them: “What do you think it means to be an idol?” Their answers establish their characters in a way that only someone who had been following their stories befrorehand could, proving beyond all doubt that Nishigori held this franchise close to his heart. What’s more, three important goals were accomplished in one fell swoop through this premiere; the Producer’s position and a narrative to work with going forward were established, while both fans and non-fans alike had been given even more reason to stick with the show.

What of the third goal? Well, that one’s a bit more simple. It gave us a taster of what was to come in terms of the production itself. The cast could get by purely on the charm of their personalities alone, but now they had Nishigori’s animation friendly designs backing them up. And the team made more than sure to take advantage of that. Never before had 765Pro felt so expressive, yet this wasn’t a one off spectacle either. To our awe and delight, it would be the standard for most of the show going forward. Or well, one of them. You can’t have imas without live performances, and they understood just how essential that would be to the show. Performance scenes in TV anime were hardly rare, but the numerous limitations other teams faced meant that they would either rely heavily on 3DCG or settle for simple movements — though certain spectacular exemptions did exist. Animas set out to change the game entirely, hence why the episode closes out with the cast practicing choreo for the always delightful The world is all one!!, making it crystal clear that this really wouldn’t be your run of the mill adaptation. Any and all expectations had been thoroughly blown out of the water.

In an industry that is for all intents and purposes one big web of connections, shockwaves from a big bang event like the birth of Team imas were bound to be felt elsewhere. Projects that amass a certain amount of talent are notable in how they act as a magnet for more talent, and Animas was no different in that respect. What did set it apart from other shows that benefited from similar effects was in the sheer variety of creators that came on board for the ride. From stars of the current age who had just began their rise at the time to veritable industry legends, you’re more likely to find some well known names in almost any of its episode credits than not. Takahiro Shikama is an excellent example of the former, as he was coming off an incredible run on Star Driver and contributed a decent chunk throughout the show’s run, including one of its most powerful moments. Even Akira Hamaguchi made a one off appearance for the Blu-Ray exclusive OVA, and if you squint hard enough you’ll find Ryu Nakayama in the earliest stages of his career providing 2nd key animation.

As appealing as guest appearances are, they’re oftentimes accompanied by the risk of creative restrictions in order to fit the tone and/or context of the material they’re working on. That might sound foreboding, but I only bring it up to highlight that it was never the case when it came to imas. It has and always will be the sort of franchise that goes in every direction it possibly can, making it an ideal venue for these guests to let their creative juices flow without much concern. This goes doubly so for the likes of Shigeyasu Yamauchi and Akitoshi Yokoyama, both of which were more than willing to let their idiosyncratic styles seep into their respective episodes; Yamauchi’s closeups, muted colours and ominous framing are right at home in an episode themed around a not-so-murder mystery, whereas Yokoyama’s unconventional angles and distorted layouts don’t just make it one of the most visually interesting episodes, they also bring Ritsuko’s concerns about her temporary return to the stage to the forefront even before she explicitly brings it up herself.

Though Nishigori may have parted ways with many of his old Gainax buddies, his links to them were far from severed. Ryuichi Kimura, who wasn’t directly affiliated with them but made a number of key contributions to their shows, handled some lighthearted yet ultimately earnest episodes before setting off and using that experience on the soon to be Aikatsu!. Meanwhile Akira Amemiya‘s sporadic appearances throughout the show’s run culminated with the PV for in-universe movie Mujin Gattai Kisaragi, where he teamed up with none other than Hiroyuki Imaishi, the latter handling storyboard duties while he directed and solo animated it, resulting in a piece so well received that similar PVs of its ilk would become almost essential parts of future adaptations. That wouldn’t be the last we saw of him either, as just two episodes later he appeared alongside his now TRIGGER buddies in the studio’s official debut — for a Makoto focused episode no less, because Nishigori has never played favourites in his life. Even the one and only Yoh Yoshinari couldn’t be kept away from the show, contributing to both its second opening and the final episode, albeit uncredited. Imaishi, Amemiya and Yoshinari would even take part in the support illustrations feature that was running on the official site at the time, because blood truly does run thick among industry friends.

Star studded as its staff lineup was, implying that was the show’s main strength would be doing it a massive disservice. Talk of shows and episodes being blessed with stacked lineups is common nowadays, but there’s little more important to a project than a proper core that those people can mold in accordance to their vision. By fans for fans sounds good in theory, but it always runs the risk of becoming overly self-indulgent. Animas could have easily settled for monotonous fanservice, but Nishigori didn’t just understand the importance of getting across what makes the franchise special in the first place, he also felt that it was his duty to do something new with it even if that meant prioritising his own vision — while never forgetting events that captured the hearts of existing fans in the first place, of course.

That gives us an excuse to return to the idea of the Producer, whose inclusion as part of the main cast is important precisely because of what he isn’t. 765Pro are a truly equal sum of their parts, a family that wouldn’t be the same should it lack a single one of them. Those bonds are a major reason for the enduring love fans hold for them, and Animas sought to add a new member to that family. The affectionately named BaneP wouldn’t be the panacea to their struggles; his growth as a character would be just as important to the show as the rest of the cast, though care would always be taken to avoid him overshadowing them. The more the show shifts towards the outside world and 765Pro’s place in it, the more we see the mutual influences they’ve had on each other, to the point where he truly does feel like as much a part of the family as everyone else. He doesn’t stand above them but beside them, and even as I write this post nine years later, it’s still hard to envision 765Pro without him.

With all that said, Nishigori wasn’t without his shortcomings. His passion for the franchise was one of the show’s undeniable assets, but it also became something of a double-edged sword along the way. The more you care for something, the more you want others to do so as well. That reality, coupled with the fact that this was his first time in the director’s seat, wound up taking its toll on the production. Lofty ideals put extra pressure on the rest of the staff to meet them, of note being the unspoken rule that the cast must share equal amounts of screen presence, something that might have been mitigated with a bit more experience. The bright side is that, in spite of the goal to promote the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 releases of The [email protected] 2 that flanked both ends of 2011, Animas was afforded some breathing space in its production which, coupled together with the outstanding people working on it, prevented it from falling apart like it may have otherwise.

Knowing what we do now from his post-imas related work, it’s safe to say that Nishigori is a product of the Gainax environment through and through. That is to say, his style of direction has about the subtlety of a swift kick to the face. Not a negative in and of itself considering the wild creativity spawned from it was a perfect fit for drafting the show’s performance scenes and certain emotional highs, but he’s gone on record himself about being the type to bruteforce things and brush over the finer details, letting others piece his intentions together for him. An approach like that is bound to lead to pitfalls without someone on hand to fill the gaps, and one of them came in the form of 961Pro’s position within the show. While crucial to the second half’s first major climax, Kuroi’s portrayal as a cartoon villain puts a damper on the experience as a whole, doubly so when Jupiter come across as far more gullible than they should be for blindly believing him in the first place. Nishigori saw this approach as a way to avoid dedicating time to Kuroi that he could give to 765Pro instead, a clumsy mindset that he himself came to regret in later years.

The bigger issue posed in the face of all this was that a look into the everyday life of 765Pro had already been marked as a must for the show by a director who found himself inherently incompatible with that sort of material in the first place…and yet quiet scenarios and character moments went on to become the show’s backbone anyway.

So how did Nishigori manage to overcome his own limitations? The simple answer is that he didn’t, nor did he need to. Not when he’d found an ally, arguably his greatest, in Noriko Takao. If Nishigori was the passionate heart of the project, then Takao was the quiet soul; two living examples of the age old saying that opposites attract. Tasked with series direction (シリーズ演出), her input on the final product can’t be understated. If that sounds familiar, then you’re likely thinking of similar cases in KyoAni related titles like Sound! Euphonium and Violet Evergarden. The credit existed before them of course, but there’s no denying that knowledge of it became much more widespread when it became attached to an industry superstar like Naoko Yamada and then carried on by her disciple Haruka Fujita.

In theory this made Takao second-in-command, though it would be much more accurate to say that she was sharing the director’s seat with Nishigori. Her KyoAni background made her the perfect fit for bringing to life the parts that he couldn’t, adding an extra touch to the daily interactions of the cast that wouldn’t feel nearly as believable without someone of her pedigree overseeing each individual episode. Yet her role didn’t just stop there, either. Nishigori had plenty of talks with her throughout the show’s production, particularly when it came to how they should handle its most important moments. Technically that speaks volumes for the amount of trust he had in her, but we can take that one step further and point out that he opted to give her control over those episodes as opposed to directly handling them himself. He was obviously a crucial element in how the show turned out, but it’s important to remember that while he may have gathered the provisions and planned out the destination, it was Takao who charted the route and ensured they reached said destination in the most satisfying way possible.

Nine years down the line, it’s easier to grasp Animas’ success and why it happened to resonate with so many people. It wasn’t just an experience for existing fans; if anything, it helped reinvigorate the franchise by bringing in all sorts of new ones, and much of that is down to the people involved with making the show in the first place. Something that those in charge of the franchise seemed to understand as well, considering they wasted no time in bringing them back to make bonus episodes bundled with the multiple releases of Shiny Festa on top of four music videos, each capturing a separate aspect of what makes imas feel like imas in the first place, to be featured in each version, truly bringing us back full circle to the days where Nishigori first suggested doing exactly that. For those who don’t know me too well, yes, I did buy all three versions on release day.

By this point, team imas had become something of an anime making family very much in the same vein as 765Pro, and together they set the bar for the slew of properties that would seek to ride on Animas‘s success. Most importantly, though, they also set it for themselves, and would set out to clear it much sooner than any of us could have expected with a surprise announcement of the movie Beyond the Brilliant Future, not to mention the adaptations of Cinderella Girls and SideM that would follow it. Whether or not they managed that feat is down to personal opinion in the end, but there’s no denying that the spirit and legacy of Animas was thoroughly carried on throughout the years, even as the team gradually splintered off thanks to them being in high demand, particularly on projects that were pinned as potential money makers.

As we close this post out, it’s worth addressing the current state of the franchise’s presence on TV. Around three years ago I wrote about why we wouldn’t be seeing a Million Live adaptation anytime soon, which boiled down to the points mentioned just above. And that held true; Darling in the FRANXX may have wrapped up, but most team imas members that had congregated there would soon see themselves taking up significant roles in Fate/Grand Order Babylonia, once again keeping them tied down for the foreseeable future. What I couldn’t have predicted at the time, though, is that we’d reach the stage where mainline imas productions would continue in spite of that.

The announcement of a Million Live anime earlier this month came as a legitimate shock to many, moreso after learning that it would be a full 3DCG production at Shirogumi with no familiar staff in sight. As it happens, though, this isn’t actually as much of a surprise as it would seem at first. In fact, signs that this development was coming had already started to surface sometime beforehand. Last year in particular saw the release of The [email protected] Cinderella Girls Spin-off!, directed by Naoki “yotube” Yoshibe at CG powerhouse Orange, which was notable for being the first major project since Animas that was handled by a high profile creator and studio outside of A-1. Projects like Puchimas, Cingeki and SideM Mini also exist of course, but they were always meant to be in their own little bubble, while the Curry Meshi cross-promotion made at Sanzigen always felt like the product of a very straightforward business decision. Spin-off!, on the other hand, had none of those strings attached. On a surface level it was conceptualised from the outset to promote both Cinderella Girls’ 8th anniversary and its new song, but also to be something of a trial run. Was it feasible to move on from the team who had made imas adaptations what they were in the first place, without losing that same charm and spirit? Judging by the results, it’s safe to say reached a unanimous yes.

From a purely biased perspective — it should be obvious how invested I am in both this franchise and team imas at this point — this turn of events isn’t ideal. But I’m also not a subscriber to the gloom and doom that started spreading when this announcement first landed. If anything, this post exists to highlight precisely why I feel it’s fair to still have hope for the future. There’s been ups and downs over the years, particularly when it comes to production realities vs business practices, but the legacy started by Animas has remained firmly in tact all this time, and I’m willing to believe they’ll make an effort to respect that considering Million Live’s direct ties to 765Pro. That’s not to say anything of the inevitable Shiny Colours adaptation, which would be pointless without concise direction because it already outclasses plenty of anime, not to mention every other game of its ilk, with art direction that’s quite frankly out of this world and animations that somehow keep getting better and better.

The worst can always come to worst, of course, but right now I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Because if there’s one constant in this world, it’s the idea of imas saikou.

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2 years ago

Wow this post really made me wanna watch imas anime, I’ve only watched Cinderella girls but never got around to watch the rest and this really make me want to see it, It’s unfortunate that unlike love live they still aren’t trying to get to the overseas audience, it’s one of the reason I’m mostly watching imas from the side, as I played a lot of Cinderella girls starlight stage without understanding anything because I only know some vocal japanese, but I only know some katakana and hiragana on written, I recently played some shiny colors thanks to the English… Read more »