Studio Ufotable recently hit their 20th anniversary, which they celebrated with their most successful title to date. Their history up till this point has been marked by consistent ideology, but they’ve still gone through very distinct eras—including some of the craziest experimentation seen in commercial Japanese animation. Theirs is a tale of wild but meticulous growth.
In spite of the laundry list of issues that everyone is facing right now, the last month has presented Ufotable with many reasons for celebration. It’s been 20 years since the studio was founded, and potential health hazards aside, they’ve just released their biggest hit yet: Demon Slayer Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train. Despite the unprecedented scale of that success, though, most people acquainted with the current anime landscape would agree that it’s not much of a surprise. Ufotable have rightfully earned a reputation as the greatest crowd-pleasers in anime right now; they tend to tackle source material that’s already beloved yet holds the potential to explode in popularity even further, approaching it with a reverence between that of a fan’s and an author’s, and executing it all in a characteristically dazzling way. A studio that feels pulled straight out of a dream of most anime fans.
Therefore, no better time than this anniversary to remind people that it wasn’t always like that—not all parts of that statement anyway. Ufotable are a fascinating example of consistent vision materializing in wildly different ways depending on the stage of maturity of the company as a whole, as well as how different studio leaders have interpreted those principles. It’s time we take a look back at the different eras at Ufotable, following their growth and the intrinsic link between the quality of their output and their workplace philosophy.
Ufotable’s Creation: Chasing an Ambitious Dream
We’ve talked before about the different patterns behind the creation of a new anime studio. Often we’ll see entire substudios splitting off to become a company of their own, using their already established processes to handle full-on production right off the bat; even in such cases, though, they usually start as a subcontracted studio rather than creating their own titles since day one. On the other hand, there are small teams coming together entirely anew because of a shared vision. Be it complete newbies or—like in Ufotable’s case—a ragtag group of people with their fair share of experience, cases like this lead tend to lead to humbler beginnings. Even animating individual episodes can be too much to ask for from crews that haven’t established their pipeline, talented as their members may be.
Put in a situation where they were forced to think smaller, Ufotable’s first works were all over the place. Their debut piece—an animated intro for the music variety program Utaban—was followed by all sorts of contributions to TV programs with no relation whatsoever to anime, live-action skits, the first few of the studio’s many promotional works for videogames, as well as more standard side jobs like CG contributions to the likes of Gundam SEED and Sonic X. You might think that handling such a wide array of tasks within the first few years of operations was because the studio was founded by a diverse crew. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
It’s important to note that Ufotable’s founding members included someone who already held the title of director in Takuya Nonaka, an animator down in the trenches to this day like Satoshi Takahashi, their first designer Jun Shibata, as well as Emi Chiba, who would go on to become their lead color designer for many years. CG artist turned independent innovator Takeshi Nagata and living legend of anime art direction Kazuo Ebisawa—51 years in the industry and still going—joined soon after that, widening the studio’s repertoire some more. For a company that started quite small, Ufotable already had more specialists in different fields than much larger standard studios often gather.
While having a crew like that does allow you to handle all sorts of requests, though, the reason why such a team was assembled and then sought those jobs goes deeper than that. And at the root of it all, there’s that shared vision embodied by Ufotable’s founder: Hikaru Kondo. As a multitalented individual, his dream was a studio where creators could gather around a table and, regardless of their standing and specialty, have a say in a very diverse array of activities—“the more you do, the more likely you are to do something well” being his amusing motto. With someone like that in charge, the studio’s unnaturally wide repertoire of talents and aspirations, and the uniquely synergetic workplace they developed with time, end up feeling like an inescapable outcome. Though as we’ll see, all those ambitions could have easily come crashing down.
Truth to be told, Kondo has always had his detractors—especially fans of the studio who felt that his hands-on work in duties like scriptwriting and storyboarding would be better off handled by specialists. It goes without saying now, but his public perception took a further nosedive after the studio was charged for tax evasion of his own doing. And yet, it’s impossible to understand Ufotable without looking at him. There’s simply no separating the ideologue from the studio that over time became that complete anime production company of his dreams. This is especially obvious considering the fact that Kondo has spent those two decades directly involved in the making of every Ufotable title, working under all the production roles that exist in this industry plus some he made up along the way. For the good and for the bad, he is Ufotable.
Even prior to the studio’s founding, Kondo’s personal background already reflected an unusual breadth of interests; a professional career that started in the videogame industry, switched to anime for management work at studio TMS/Telecom, then jumped ship to a media production company for a bit before finally founding an anime studio with aspirations to be more than that. His experience in multiple fields immediately proved useful to Ufotable, diversifying not just their skills but their sources of revenue as well. While no one at that stage would have guessed that that Ufotable’s activities would eventually range from international touristic attractions to cinemas, that is in retrospect a natural outcome considering the path that Kondo set them on since the start. The new anime studio that made a conscious effort to work beyond the industry’s traditional boundaries, that small team whose abilities already ranged from Claymation to innovative digital techniques, was bound to end up becoming this unique existence.
An Explosive Start That Immediately Set The Tone
For a small studio with grand goals—or perhaps because they were so focused on those big dreams—Ufotable blazed through their preparative stages. By late 2002, they were already handling the subcontracted animation of Weiß Kreuz Glühen, and a year later, the world got to experience the first genuine Ufotable TV anime: the eccentric comedy Dokkoida. A quirky tokusatsu-adjacent debut work that could have fallen flat on its face were it not for the fact that Ufotable delivered every second of it with as much energy as possible. Thanks to that effort, though, their very first show already caught the attention of many animation fans; so much so that renowned journalist Yuichiro “animesama” Oguro took no time to go investigate Ufotable in situ, as the studio had immediately proved that they were worth keeping track of.
Although they don’t paint the full picture, some of Dokkoida’s quantifiable achievements can tell us a lot about early Ufotable’s qualities and the show’s own charms; numbers may not tell the full story, but they sure provide excellent hints here. For starters, there’s the fact that a grand total of zero episodes were subcontracted to other studios. Just three years after the studio was founded, with only 35 staff members at their disposal—an inflated number as the actual employees were a fraction of that—Ufotable was able to manage the production of every single episode, effectively setting the tone for their in-house production future.
But how did they manage that in the first place? Willingness to do it and good old-fashioned networking went a long way, for starters. Already existing bonds, like the one with action specialist Go Kimura, were reinforced throughout this production. Inseparable teams forged at other studios—you might have heard of Haruo Sotozaki and Akira Matsushima thanks to a certain demon slaying title—were also absorbed into Ufotable, because inviting one of them would inevitably attract the other.
Perhaps the funniest case was Mitsuru Obunai, a member of the freelance animator circle Studio Hercules who simply happened to be an ex-classmate of co-series director Nonaka. After lending a hand in various roles, Obunai took a liking to the studio, sticking with them in the long run as their brute force action star. Incidentally, I must add that another ex-classmate of theirs happens to be Yutaka Nakamura, so there’s an alternate timeline where Nonaka called him instead and the most influential action specialist of this era ended up becoming a Ufotable regular. Yes, I’m mostly adding this to scare my BONES-loving friends.
Personal relationships aside, Ufotable simply succeeded at making their projects look attractive to animators with the desire to go on a rampage. And this is where another one of those quantifiable achievements we mentioned earlier comes into play. While we’ve said many times that the number of drawings in an episode is no objective metric of quality, the fact that Dokkoida averaged around twice as many as your standard TV project does correlate to how ambitious their attitude was. Industry folks often talk about certain studios such as the aforementioned BONES as places that gather animators that enjoy making things move. Now that’s a title you wouldn’t necessarily give to the current Ufotable, but back in their early stages, it defined them.
It was that appeal that helped them attract many excellent freelancers for Dokkoida—some of whom fell out of love with the studio as they shifted focus, while others evolved alongside the studio itself and stuck with Ufotable in the long run. On top of the ones we’ve already mentioned, F/SN’s directors Takahiro Miura and Tomonori Sudo, as well as regular supervisors like Atsushi Ogasawara, are also part of Dokkoida’s loot. Not bad for their first show!
All those trends continued with Ufotable’s second TV anime: the absurdist ninja-themed comedy 2×2 = Shinobuden, aptly localized as Ninja Nonsense. While feeling very much like a product of its time in retrospect, its charming cast that still lent itself to outbursts of insane creative power won more people over to Ufotable’s camp. Their increasingly more robust lineup of regular contributors showed up with just as much energy as they did in Dokkoida, adding multitalented individuals like Atsushi Ikariya to Ufotable’s roster in the process. New occasional guests refused to be overshadowed, and the studio’s grand schemes progressed in the background; after expanding the CG team into a more general-purpose digital crew, they were able to handle part of the compositing work on their own too. Still in their infancy, Ufotable was already taking resolute steps towards self-sufficiency.
Ufotable’s Experimental Era: The Rise of Takayuki Hirao
Given that the first couple of projects marked such a resolute sprint towards in-house production, Ufotable’s next era might look like a bit of a step back if you don’t pay too much attention. They indeed went on to co-produce anime with other studios and featured multiple outsourced episodes in their following titles, but as you can imagine, that’s hardly the full story. This stronger reliance on outside talent can be explained by the increase in the working pace and scope of each title, and their inner growth more than made up for it in the first place. Over the following years, Ufotable strengthened the departments they already had—animation, painting, compositing—while also taking their first major steps in new roles, like writing, painting backgrounds, even creating manga to be released alongside their own original titles.
And it’s precisely the originality of those titles that became the major theme of the studio at the time. If Ufotable’s first TV anime were standard material elevated by the studio’s energetic production, what followed was a unique storm where genres and standard production practices were all thrown out the window. In another move towards that in-house model where everyone can contribute that Kondo had dreamed of, Ufotable turned to its own staff to lead every project—freelance director Hitoyuki Matsui had done so for all their major works—and disregarded anime’s traditional hierarchy.
The first example of their curious approach was Futakoi Alternative, a series with two chief directors. Rather than the usual case where one chief oversees the structural choices while a more hands-on director handles all the creative work, the studio stuck to its guns with two leaders essentially on the same level. Although one of those chief directors—Kondo himself under a pseudonym—had a bit more of a management role and the other one was more involved in tasks like storyboarding and episode direction, they didn’t really map to the traditional arrangement either.
After a slightly more standard project in Coyote Ragtime Show, Ufotable took the Futakoi Alternative formula to the next level with Gakuen Utopia Manabi Straight—a show with a number of series directors ranging from zero to four, depending on how you look at it. The Team Manabi Room credited for that role featured a scriptwriter the studio knew well in Story Director Ryunosuke Kingetsu, given a higher status than your usual series composer. Atsushi Ogasawara, who had been working with Ufotable since Dokkoida, acted not just as the character designer but also as Visual Director, defining the show’s aesthetic to a large degree. By his side he had Layout Director Takuro Takahashi, whose role was given much higher priority than usual as the depiction of the setting was key to Manabi Straight’s unique feeling. And leading it all, if there can even be a leader in a system where the creative process is decentralized like this, there was Technical Director Takayuki Hirao. In a studio that’s all about the team, few individuals have been as significant as him.
Hirao’s career had begun at Madhouse, a studio where he arrived with exactly the right timing to learn under some of the most renowned directors in the industry. He got to enjoy experiences like his storyboarding and directing debut on TEXHNOLYZE under Hiroshi Hamasaki, or working alongside Masayuki Kojima on a Madhouse-flavored episode of Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi. But most importantly, when it comes to lasting influence and the caliber of his mentor, he learned from the one and only Satoshi Kon—first as a production assistant on Millenium Actress, but quickly entrusted with directorial duties on Paranoia Agent. To this day, Hirao’s style is a fascinating mix of Kon’s reality-bending editing chops and the bombastic approach that he shares with his good friend Tetsuro Araki, another contemporary of his at Madhouse.
Although he was hardly a famous name at the time, Ufotable didn’t hesitate to entrust Hirao with lots of responsibilities right off the bat. He joined them to be co-chief director for Futakoi Alternative, handled a similar role in Manabi Straight, and quickly became the studio’s creative leader. Even in an environment where the field was evened as much as possible, he was still the one to handle climactic moments at the studio, the person their peers would simply go to for artistic advice. The studio as a whole trusted him, and that faith paid off.
The titles they made together weren’t just quirky productions for the hell of it, they were disruptions of established tropes that benefited from the studio’s approach. Futakoi Alternative reinvented a frankly bland romantic comedy and refused to settle into one genre in the process, switching from noir to non-sequitur surreal humor in the blink of an eye. In short, a constant creative back and forth already embodied by its unusual team. Similarly, Manabi Straight betrayed expectations with its understated focus on worldbuilding and often off-kilter mood—at atmosphere that directly benefited from unique roles like Takahashi’s. Neither felt spiteful towards their original genres, as they technically still were a romcom and an uplifting look at the daily lives of high school girls, but it’s clear how well they weaponized being different. While it’s Kondo whom we can credit for Ufotable’s disregard for customs, the individual who allowed them to succeed at that on a creative level when the studio was in its wildest stage was clearly Hirao.
That relationship continued for over a decade. Hirao kept on using his ability to think outside the box to materialize Ufotable’s ideals in ways befitting each title he was in charge of. In The Garden of Sinners: Paradox Spiral, he pulled off a stunt completely unlike the rest of the series by pushing for non-linear storytelling, deliberately shaping the script itself into a spiral too. For Majocco Shimai no Yoyo to Nene, he didn’t hesitate to downplay his own studio’s postprocessing forte to offer a much cleaner look that felt perfectly in line with the content of the film: a charming kids movie that deals with painful topics with no subterfuge. Even in cases where he made mistakes, like the time where his inability to downscale his ambition managed to crash an already massive animation powerhouse, his failure was somewhat fascinating; there genuinely is no anime that approaches technical aspects like shading in the same way as God Eater did.
After hearing so much praise, people who aren’t caught up with the news might be surprised to hear that Hirao and Ufotable parted ways in 2016. As sad as the departure of an actual genius was, the truth is that the studio’s evolution had gradually narrowed the space where a creator like him could flourish. Hirao was at the right place at the right time, but considering the more rigid direction Ufotable took, eventually it made more sense for him to find a new place to do his own thing. And, after assisting his pal Araki for a while, he’s now found that: a small studio created by another Madhouse contemporary, where he’s currently exploring the possibilities of animating the act of filmmaking itself with the upcoming movie Pompo The Cinephile. A seemingly perfect fit for him that allows me to say that there are no sad endings to these intertwined tales. And in a way, no endings period, as we’re about to see that his influence on Ufotable continues to this day.
Synergetic Relationships: Establishing The Studio’s Modern Brand
To understand the beginnings of what we could call Modern Ufotable, we should rewind back to 2007, right after Manabi Straight. As it turns out, it wasn’t just fans of intrepid anime that had started gravitating towards the studio. While their output during that experimental period wasn’t all that successful from a financial standpoint, it did catch the eye of producers like Aniplex’s Atsuhiro Iwakami. Enamored with the unique stunts that Hirao and company pulled off during Futakoi Adventure, Iwakami had the daring idea to approach Ufotable and TYPE-MOON for a theatrical trilogy adaptation of Kinoko Nasu’s The Garden of Sinners. As a fan of the studio, perhaps Iwakami should have known that Kondo’s response would be to increase that number to seven films, mirroring the chapters of the original work—and making them longer than initially intended while they were at it.
Fortunately for everyone involved, the risky commitment paid off. The Garden of Sinners was a gritty, uncompromising production with stunning highlights, the first take on the Nasuverse that original fans felt lived up to the potential of its world. The directorial workload distribution was a smart way to still allow somewhat diverse styles to coexist in the same series, mostly nailing the choices of who should lead each film depending on their content. Given their success, it’s no surprise that the unimaginatively named TYPE-MOON x Ufotable Project continues to this day, having become the studio’s backbone for a long time now.
A key figure in The Garden of Sinners’ success was photography director Yuichi Terao, the current head of Ufotable’s almighty digital department; a fate he definitely didn’t expect when he applied to do management work instead. After handling various digital tasks, learning a job he didn’t even intend to take in the process, Terao led the compositing process for the first time in The Garden of Sinners—and ever since then, he’s done so for nearly every Ufotable production. Although his work didn’t have the level of polish it does nowadays, the style that quickly came to define Ufotable’s identity was appreciable right off the bat; a photorealistic aesthetic that emphasizes particle effects, rooted in reality but choosing to exaggerate rather than abbreviate. The so-called TYPE-MOON Blue tone that has become synonymous not just with the franchise but the studio as a whole is perhaps the best example of Terao’s attempt to synthesize real life into animation that fans will find most attractive.
And to his credit, audiences did find it exciting. The Garden of Sinners was a hit in ways that mere numbers can’t capture. Its financial success undoubtedly helped Ufotable strengthen the partnership that gave birth to this adaptation, of course, but money alone can’t buy you the fandom’s overall belief that no other studio can compete when it comes to TYPE-MOON anime. People’s mental image of their very popular franchises has become inherently tied to Ufotable’s work, to the point that other studios often try to mimic aspects of Terao and company’s style—with cruder results across the board—because they know for a fact that it’s what audiences want. In retrospect, The Garden of Sinners’ role in starting that phenomenon can’t be overstated.
After the studio’s first few years of operations, which were densely packed with exciting developments but not necessarily rewarded with mainstream acclaim, things started looking up in a major way for Ufotable. The Garden of Sinners had put them in your average fan’s field of vision, while side projects like the Tales of Symphonia OVAs also gained big followings—so much so that the project was extended far beyond its original scope. And, when faced with the challenge of success, Ufotable did what they’d always done: put the studio’s philosophy at the forefront.
Moving into 2009, they founded their Ufotable Tokushima substudio, a regional branch led by Nonaka with the explicit focus to train young staff and ensure they have a say in the creative process too. Their work also included the organization of Machi Asobi, a biannual industry event that has stood as one of the most successful anime tourism phenomenons for a decade. Studios growing when things go well is a common occurrence, but the specificity of Ufotable’s expansion at the time shows a true commitment to the studio’s ideals, as well as an understanding of what their pipeline actually needed.
Their smart growth put them on the right track to tackle the studio’s next major project. Fate/Zero ended up being as much of a pivotal moment for Ufotable as The Garden of Sinners had been, if not more; an even larger hit, their most effective bait to attract young talent yet, and arguably the first full realization of Kondo’s initial idea. From that point onwards, Ufotable’s workflow has been fluid like no other studio’s, eliminating barriers between departments for a truly communal creative process.
Background painters and compositing artists work hand in hand, coordinating the complex lighting that bathes the studio’s worlds since the first drafts. Similar relationships exist between 2D and 3D animators. It’s as common to see a traditional ace like Masayuki Kunihiro lend his expertise in posing to the digital staff like he did for Berserker, as it is to have the latter prepare excellent 3D layouts to greatly ease the workload of key animators. And, having made a conscious effort to foster a family-like environment during that period, most individuals feel like they’re in a position to pitch a new idea to make this studio-wide process even smoother.
With that in mind, it feels like an inevitability that Ufotable would try to avoid rocking the boat too much with their project selection, instead settling on a comfortable, endless cycle of success. And to their credit, every hit they’ve put out has been punctuated by new steps towards Kondo’s ideal anime production company. Moves like the inauguration of ufotable CINEMA in 2012 amidst the Fate/Zero craze, as well the opening of up to 10 cafeterias and dining places managed by the studio over the last decade, have lessened their reliance on an influx of new contracts. And thanks to their limited animation output relative to their size—their number of employees has essentially doubled since the ~120 they had circa Fate/Zero’s production—they’ve been able to improve their pipeline with each project. Although it’s understandable that old school Ufotable fans miss their adventurous nature from the mid 00s, it’s undeniable that it’s this stability that has ensured the full realization of the studio’s motto and their sustainability in the long run. If possible, though, greenlight more side projects like 2012’s Minori Scramble to keep that hectic early Ufotable spirit alive!
The Current Ufotable: A Fully Established Model
Over the last few years, the once volatile Ufotable has settled down. Now this isn’t to say that their evolution has stagnated, but rather that they’re following such a clear path that every advancement feels like the logical next step. When hearing about the creation of Ufotable’s 3D(BG) Art Team in 2016 to bridge even more gaps between their in-house departments, all you can do is nod; it conforms with the studio’s philosophy, and was already mentioned as a goal by Terao back during Fate/Zero’s production. Even the creative talents that have flourished in this era dominated by Fate/Stay Night adaptations feel like a natural extension of the studio’s principles. The likes of Takahashi Suhara and especially Toshiyuki Shirai—the director of Katsugeki/Touken Ranbu, but best known for that one episode of Demon Slayer—are multitalented individuals that embody that disregard for enclosed departments in the creative process.
And that’s where we are now. Every new tech Ufotable introduces, every change in their pipeline, it’s all geared towards that ultimate goal: in-house production where the staff comes together to create something, unconcerned with standard hierarchy and roles as much as possible. One where they can all sit around a ufo-shaped table and talk about their vision. While the milestones they reach in that direction are smaller and further apart now, it’s hard to imagine the studio losing their way at this point.
Does that mean that it’s all been a smooth ride for them? Of course not, as working in anime with standards as high as theirs is always a lot of trouble, and they’ve had to feel the pain of production schedules on the regular. While the diversification of sources of revenue that Kondo had always pushed for has allowed them to get away with working on a relatively small number of titles, anime is hardly ever a safe environment. Get a bit too careless with the timing of your projects, and a workload you would have been able to handle normally can crash even a studio nearly at the top of the industry.
Besides the infamous case of GOD EATER, most Ufotable TV projects after 2015 were either rushed out or eventually thrown under the bus—by the studio’s standards anyways—as the next big title was approaching. It’s not until rather recently that things have calmed down somewhat, but even then, Demon Slayer still had to make do with fewer resources than most fans would think; you can thank the unblemished character art and one of the best examples of that studio synergy we’ve been talking about for its widespread success regardless of that. Ironically, that ability to punch about their weight even when the situation is less than ideal is what makes it clearest that their model does work. After two decades of working towards one very specific dream they held since the start, Ufotable has achieved something impossible for most anime studios: to amount to more than the raw sum of their individual talent.
It’s important to note that work always remains to be done, even for top studios like Ufotable. A company that found its success in building a family-like environment for the staff should never find itself in situations like this. And, regardless of the fact that they got away with their more rushed project just fine, Heavens Feel’s astonishing quality proves how much better they can do when actually given the time and assets they need. Personally speaking, I also think that doing fewer tax crimes would be an overall net positive too, but I’m aware that might be a bit of a controversial opinion. Take a step back and compare them to the industry as a whole, though, and you’ll quickly realize that they’re in a much better position than pretty much all their peers. Addressing those specifics problems should be the way forward, not retreating just because problems do exist.
Now don’t get me wrong, the goal of this write-up wasn’t to sell anyone on Ufotable, but rather to recap the studio’s history and help people better understand their strategy. If you enjoy their current works, this might give you a better grasp of what makes it all click. On the contrary, if you fell out of love with the studio over time, you might come to realize that it was events like Hirao’s gradual departure that made the magic of early Ufotable dwindle. Moreover, if you simply aren’t interested in the shows they put out, knowing that they settled on this very specific brand because it made their healthier production model more sustainable might make them more sympathetic to you. Chances are that you won’t be becoming a fan of theirs anytime soon if you’re allergic to TYPE-MOON and their game adaptations—though Demon Slayer proves they’re still willing to tackle different IPs—but you might see them in a different light. Maybe a dazzling light with blue tint, knowing Terao and company.