It’s no secret that Re:Zero‘s staff is facing more adversities than ever before, so how have they been managing to still knock all the big moments in the series out of the park? Let’s dig into the understanding of the material and resource management that have been making that somehow possible.
Leading up to the second season of Re:Zero, we published a lengthy piece breaking down the original series’ success. I argued that its excellence as an adaptation came down to a team led by series director Masaharu Watanabe, who hadn’t just deeply grasped the core of the work, but also had what it took— technical skill, vision, influence on higher-ups—to make it hit all the right notes. Their commitment was obvious in the many instances where they’d increase their workload rather than cut corners, or whenever they would double down on material and presentation that could be unpleasant to watch because they felt that was the right choice from a character perspective. And, while it wasn’t a lavish sakuga festival on the regular, its sturdy production with memorable highlights of intense and tender animation went a long way to sell Natsuki Subaru’s story too; a rare case of consistent greatness in the current TV anime space, which made it so much easier for the viewers to get immersed.
At the end of that, I made a bit of an educated guess regarding the future of the sequel. With the core staff remaining intact, so would the fundamental qualities of the adaptation. Short of Watanabe hitting himself in the head and getting amnesia, that was never at risk. And even then, Re:Zero has already made a good case about people’s deeply held convictions remaining the same even if their memories disappear.
Jokes aside, though, there was something at risk: that consistency and polish the show once enjoyed. As admirable as I find studio White Fox’s long-term strategy to become more self-sufficient, there’s no denying that they’ve bled away much of their talent in recent years. Their once-solid schedules have also taken a turn for the worse, and this show is no exception despite being such a big property. Not only has a tweet by an animation director about their work from home highlighted that the buffer was tight for a project planned so ahead of time, but even looking at the production assistants in charge tells you that they haven’t had all that much time to focus on the actual making this show; fans should really be thankful that the team was able to bargain for a delay and split broadcast, otherwise things could have gotten ugly. On top of that, Re:Zero no longer has the support of studio Nexus, which massively alleviated the pain for the main crew by producing a whole 9 episodes of the first season themselves. Not an alarming situation, but one that got me to anticipate a somewhat rougher production that would nonetheless nail the important moments.
And five episodes in, we’ve seen… a somewhat rougher production that has nonetheless nailed the important moments, showing care and understanding of the material all the way through. Since I felt like we owed a bit of a follow-up to that post, and figured fans would be curious about the creators behind the sequel—this means people already approached us to ask—let’s take a look at these first few episodes!
Surprising no one, Re:Zero’s second season opens up by the hand of Watanabe himself. Acting as storyboarder and episode co-director, he treated it more as episode #26 than as a grand new beginning. Considering the lineup of mostly freelance outsiders and near-complete lack of big in-house animators, it’s no exaggeration to even say that it was deemed a low priority episode in the grand scheme of things. Coming back after such a long break with a bit of an unremarkable animation effort, and with only one hook in the form of a gut punch the first season spared everyone from, was kind of a risky bet… which I’d say worked well enough.
For starters, there’s the fact that the smart management of the property has kept it relevant in the eyes of viewers; the multiple OVAs and the enhanced rebroadcast make it so that this comes across as less of an unceremonious comeback, though the effect of their efforts might not be as easy to perceive overseas. But most importantly, Watanabe happens to be very good at his job, even when he needs to be mindful of the resources. His unmistakable wide layouts, sometimes outright distorted with a fisheye lens, are all he needs to establish a certain atmosphere. Despair and hope, the gruesomeness of the fight, power standings, or just a new member of everyone’s least favorite cult of lunatics doing their thing—his framing is conceptually simple but very effective. Add to that the finesse in episode direction duties, shown in details like the chain SFX that once haunted Subaru being what draws him to Rem’s body or Emilia returning the warmth to his eyes, and you’ve got an episode that gets the job done despite the limitations.
The first episode also treats us to the first appearance of the highest profile newcomer to the team post-season one: action supervisor Kazuhiro Ota. Much like Watanabe, Ota is somewhat holding back here, which makes sense considering not just that prioritization we’ve been talking about, but the fact that his workload for the sequel is immense. In spite of that, the episode still shows flashes of the skill that got him to land the job. His intensity in both expressions and animation are visible as Crusch and Rem face the archbishops, and his beautiful effects that tend to dissolve into particles are most notorious when they meet their cruel fate; by watching this episode, you’d think he’s the Supervisor of Bad Stuff Happening rather than the action director. It’s by no means the most satisfying piece of action in the series, but as anyone who’s watched the episode understands, it was never meant to be.
If you want a showcase of unrestrained Ota in Re:Zero, he supervised the animation of the opening we rarely get to see, earning the top key animation spot too for the intense sequence around the end. Re:Zero‘s openings always come back to the same motifs because the themes are that clear, but with Ota’s intense animation, Subaru’s desperation hits harder than ever.
The next couple episodes follow that same trend. A team of new freelance animators simply getting the job done, and a returning lineup of directors who get what Re:Zero is all about elevating everyone’s work. That said, there have been some interesting newcomers in that front, most notably episode #02’s storyboarder Masayuki Kojima; a director with iconic titles as varied as Monster, Azuki-chan, and Made in Abyss in his resume, as adaptability is his forte. Being able to sneak into a consistent team of directors and put together something that doesn’t stand out in a negative way takes more effort than you’re thinking, but that’s no big deal for a chameleonic creator like him. And that’s not to say he has no quirks of his own, of course: the spaciousness even in interiors and his tendency to isolate characters are all over the episode, used most effectively in the final sequence that traps and belittles Subaru. Pretty good comedic timing too, especially with the shots that purposefully cut just a bit too early. Having a diverse skillset does pay off!
On the other hand, episode #03 returns to familiar hands with Kenichi Kawamura as the storyboarder and episode director. He placed emphasis in the right aspects, like giving Echidna a dominating screen presence even when that contrasts with her nonchalant demeanor, and his strong affinity for eye close-ups even allows you to see how the dynamics shift by looking at those alone. It might very well have the prettiest overall package in the second season thus far too; allowing a director who’s already mindful of lighting like Kawamura to regulate everything, then piling up more animation supervisors than usual to polish things up seems to be what did the trick. All things considered, though, the best thing about it from an execution standpoint might be the feeling of continuity with The Frozen Bond, the Emilia-focused theatrical OVA that was also handled by Kawamura. Seeing the start of her quest to gain actual agency through the same lens that showed us the past that motivates her simply felt right.
All that said, everyone knows which is the big episode that had made the team save up energy in the first compasses of the sequel. Re:Zero S2 #04 is a nearly impossible episode. I’m not saying this as hyperbole because it’s particularly action-heavy, or even because it covers inherently more demanding material from a technical level; though it is a feat that they accomplished something that polished this time around despite the tricky angles Watanabe loves so much. There’s plenty to love about his work as storyboarder here, from the voyeuristic feel of the camera when we begin seeing Subaru’s household for the first time, to the striking way he portrayed the downfall of a gifted child crushed by the expectations he projected himself—trapped in an unsustainable, self-destructive cycle that led to the protagonist we’ve known so far. All of that is excellent of course, but what this episode got me to appreciate even more was Watanabe’s role as series director instead. That’s where an episode like this tests what’s actually possible.
You see, Re:Zero has a long tradition of disregarding normal episode lengths. For the sake of pacing that feels deliberate rather than imposed by TV standards, this team has been glad to accept the equivalent of entire episodes of work when you add up all the extra time. And this isn’t something they can decide on their own in the first place: eating up commercial breaks and even opening and ending sequences is a disruption of how things are supposed to work, so you can bet a lot of talking to old people with old ideas has had to happen every time. All in favor of what? To spend 29 minutes and 30 seconds—including the ending that debuted this week—on the shortest chapter, because they knew it was that important to Subaru’s character. Watanabe and the team that surrounds him regularly show his commitment to this series, and in episodes like this, they take that literally as far as possible. There’s no squeezing more screentime unless they also figure out how to rewind time themselves, preferably with no deaths involved.
After such an intense emotional ride, the latest episode is a more laid back experience… with tense confrontations, trauma to overcome, and a bit of murder, since this is still Re:Zero we’re talking about. Yet another director with experience in the franchise returns in the form of Definitely Not Kazuomi Koga, best known for handling many people’s favorite episode: the title drop that was S1 #18. In the previous Re:Zero write-up I mentioned that I expected him to sneak out of his currently broadcasting series Kanokari to contribute to Re:Zero in some way, and here he is doing what he does best. Much like I remember the dazzling color choices during Rem’s confession, the crimson reds of the tragic evening at the end of this episode is one of those things that will stick with me. A great sequence leading to an ending that reminds you that this is still Re:Zero after all.
And perhaps that’s the best way to summarize the second season’s production so far. There’s no denying that the changes in the surroundings have impacted the show’s quality somewhat, but as long as it remains in the hands of this core staff, it’s still going to be Re:Zero. As easy as it is to complain about the loss of polish and slight unevenness of the animation, it’s that resource management that keeps allowing this team to knock it out of the park in the moments they’ve correctly identified as the most important. Few teams in TV anime are in a position—or even want—to go out of their way for the integrity of their show like Re:Zero‘s crew. Don’t undervalue their efforts!
Episode 26 (S2 01)
Storyboard: Masaharu Watanabe
Episode Direction: Masaharu Watanabe, Naoko Takeichi
Chief Animation Director: Kyuuta Sakai
Animation Direction: Kyuuta Sakai, Kazuhiro Ota, Masaru Hyoudo
Monster Animation Director: Tatsuya Koyanagi
Assistant Animation Director: Yuuta Otaka
Key Animation: Asuka Mamezuka, Saori Hosoda, Chie Nishio, Takeshi Tominaga, Yuuta Otaka, Yoshino Kamoshima
Kyuuta Sakai, Kazuhiro Ota
White Fox Izukogen Studio
Koko Torinoumi, Kimikazu Saitou, Takashi Ogawa
Episode 27 (S2 02)
Key Animation: Yuu Okagaki, Jeong-Nam Kim, Yuusa Masuda, Kazumasa Takeuchi, Takuya Nishimichi, Takahiro Yamakita, Sachiko Iwata, Aoki Kumiko, Kaori Yamamoto, Keiko Iwata
Episode 28 (S2 03)
Storyboard, Episode Direction: Kenichi Kawamura
Chief Animation Director: Kyuuta Sakai
Animation Direction: Ryousuke Kimiya, Tomoshige Inayoshi, Ikuma Fujibe, Yuuta Otaka, Yaeko Watanabe, Kazuhiro Ota
Monster Animation Director: Tatsuya Koyanagi
Key Animation: Ryousuke Kimiya, Tomoshige Inayoshi, Mitsunori Fujioka, Shinya Nakamura, Jun Nakamura, Yukiya Murata, Tomoko Tomita, Yuu Sada, Yoshio Usada, Masato Okada, Yuuki Kitajima, Keisei Noguchi, Mizuki Uchino, Sumire Yamazawa, Keiichi Sugiura, Shino Ikeda
Episode 29 (S2 04)
Key Animation: Masahiko Nakada, Mai Sasaki, Momoka Youmoto, Akiko Kanai, Taiichi Nakaguma, Kyouhei Oyabu, Shintarou Tsubota, Eiji Fukuyama, Junko Matsushita, Kenichi Umemoto
Episode 30 (S2 05)
Key Animation: Keiko Iwata, Yousuke Obuchi, Kimikazu Saitou, Koko Torinoumi, Takashi Ogawa, Satoru Kimura, Reo Takada, Seon-Yeong Song, Yuuko Hineno, Zhu Shijie, Yuki Watanabe, Yuka Hasegawa