Enjoy this deep dive into the unusual Winter 2021 anime season: let’s talk about its extraordinary concentration of brilliant creators and robust teams capable of supporting their ideas, but also the huge yet uneven impact of the pandemic, widening the already existing inequality rifts in the industry.
–Wonder Egg Priority
–SK8 The Infinity
–Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation
–2.43 Seiin High School Boys Volleyball Team
–Pui Pui Molcar
–So What’s Even Happening With This Industry Anymore
Wonder Egg Priority (PV)
Director: Shin Wakabayashi
Assistant Series Director: Yuta Yamazaki
Character Designer, Chief Animation Director: Saki Takahashi
Action Director: Yusuke Kawakami
Core Animator: Keisuke Kobayashi
Art Director: Yuki Funagakure
Photography Director: Takeo Ogiwara
Kevin: Wonder Egg Priority‘s brilliant way to repurpose Naoko Yamada’s quiet language for a much more intense, sharp tale about the complexity of abuse is the kind of thing no one could have even know they wanted, and yet it immediately feels like something that someone should have done faster. But of course, it takes a prodigy on Shin Wakabayashi‘s caliber who deeply understands not just his idol’s work but also the qualities of the artists he surrounds himself with to pull off something like this. It’s one of the most unique TV anime offerings in a long time, one that could end up being an all-time great if it nails the landing—and even if it doesn’t, its mere existence in the commercial animation space is already worth celebrating. It’s so good that we’ve published a whole piece about its production and context that’s about as long as this one, so just go read this if you’re interested.
Kevin: If you know Masashi Ishihama by name, chances are that you already love him. In fact, you might adore his works even if you don’t know who that is, as he has adorned dozens of titles with some of the most stylish openings and endings out there. His arsenal of sleek techniques is perfectly well documented, and yet he still manages to refine and repurpose them for each new sequence, succeeding so naturally that you’d think that was an entirely new visual lexicon he came up with for that specific series. He has the ability to immediately draw you into the world of each title, using a language of implications—silhouettes, negative space, diegetic typography—in a way that is anything but subtle; elegant in the end, yet packing quite the punch. It shouldn’t be much a surprise, then, that his skillset served him perfectly for his debut as series director nearly a decade ago in From the New World. Despite its rough edges, in a way it feels like he actually did too good of a job. It placed tremendous expectations on him, and got his fans a bit too preoccupied with whether all his following projects where ideal, built from the ground for him—somehow forgetting that he’s made a name for himself by being able to tweak his attractive opening formula for very different titles.
As if it were a response to that, here we have this wildly idiosyncratic director on a seemingly standard romance series. And lo and behold, it’s immediately more compelling than his previous major project: a Persona 5 adaptation that by all means fit his aesthetic and natural tendencies, but that was too restrictive from a creative standpoint to ever be more than a simple retelling of the game. Of course, it helps that Horimiya is simply very good at what it does. It’s not particularly worried about establishing a will-they-won’t-they tension, nor about religiously covering every single step of a relationship. Instead, it’s more of a collection of vignettes that when put together address the question of why would these people stick around together, as not just the main couple but the entire charming cast gradually learns to grow comfortable with each other. That does involve poking at their insecurities sometimes, which is where Ishihama’s natural talents are put to work in the most obvious way, but the director himself knows he’s better holding back in this mostly feel-good work; except for the astonishing opening where he exaggerates those insecurities in amusingly grandiose fashion, but you gotta allow idiosyncratic directors to be a bit self-indulgent!
If you couple that with Haruko Iizuka‘s beautiful designs—between Josee and this, she’s definitely on a roll—you’ve got the right ingredients for a very enjoyable series. It’s easy to tell that this team started being assembled quite a while back, as Ishihama’s output dropped considerably over a long stretch of time, and he only resurfaced early last year to storyboard and direct some short episodes of Auto Boy precisely under Horimiya‘s animation producer. We can only hope that their time was spent wisely! While the other fundamental qualities of this adaptation are in no danger, it would just be a pity if character art this good took a heavy hit.
SK8 the Infinity (PV)
Director: Hiroko Utsumi
Character Designer, Chief Animation Director: Michinori Chiba
Chief Animation Director: Hiroki Kannoo
Skateboard Design: Studio No Border
Art Director: Yumiko Kondo
Photography Director: Masataka Ikegami
Libo: Hiroko Utsumi has found herself in the eye of controversy a few times, but more often than not, it was due to no fault of her own. What was it, then? Well, she happened to direct Kyoto Animation’s first anime openly, unequivocably aimed at women in Free!, which boasted of high production values and quickly turned into a successful long-running franchise with a huge fanbase. Such titles often suffer from understaffing, short schedules, and low priority management, inevitably resulting in having lower production values than their counterparts. So, while it’s not as if Free! was a revolutionary title, its confident and well-realized execution felt like a breath of fresh air that its audience was glad to reward. Whether this tendency is because an industry that’s very male-dominated on its upper echelons straight up considers anime marketed at women lesser, or this is all just a series of coincidences that somehow keep happening every time, I’ll leave it up to your interpretation. It sure seems telling that a lot of people in the community weren’t happy about this usage of the studio’s resources and still bring up Utsumi as the antichrist, though!
Now, that’s not to say that there are no valid criticisms to have of her work. It’s not much of a hot take to say that Free! has its problems, most of which you can trace back to Utsumi herself. And on a more fundamental level, there’s simply the fact that eccentric creators like her often don’t mesh well with the inherent limitations of adaptation projects. Her directorial debut was more of a loose pseudo-sequel to the High Speed! novel than a standard adaptation, and after going freelance she ended up entirely reimagining the cult hit Banana Fish for its TV series; fascinating projects in some ways, but with their fair share of awkwardness due to the clashes of priorities between Utsumi and their original authors. The solution was to give her canvas to create a title of her own, something allowing her imagination to run wild. And where else could she pull it off than at the studio that made a name for themselves with creator-driven original projects? And thus she joined forced with studio Bones’ producer Mari Suzuki, created a pitch for an original skateboarding anime, and sent it to her acquaintance from Banana Fish at Aniplex, producer Kyoko Uryu. That’s how we got SK8 the Infinity: a dazzling original series conceptualized by a group of women, something that honestly shouldn’t be so exceptional.
The initial team was joined by scriptwriter Ichiro Okouchi, another eccentric figure known for writing outrageous titles full of twists and turns like Code Geass and Valvrave the Liberator. His writing can be hit-or-miss, but I believe that despite his obvious shortcomings, very few anime scriptwriters are able to write pure fun as well as him. I’d even say he’s quite good at bringing out intense emotions in characters! In a way, he’s a strangely fitting partner for Utsumi to work with. To adapt her ideas for the characters, another creator behind multiple popular anime was chosen: Michinori Chiba, the designer behind numerous Gundam franchise series, including fan-favorites Gundam 00 and Iron-Blooded Orphans. The results are beautiful showcases of his personal quirks—they’re particularly reminiscent of his 2000s works—but also appear much more detailed than we’re used to from him. Thankfully, he’s also sticking around as a chief animation director, meaning that he’ll be there to draw corrections when needed. These two staffing choices are perfectly in line with what we know about Utsumi’s taste in anime, so having them on board also feels like her fulfilling old dreams.
Since the show’s premise revolves around skateboarding, extraordinary care went into designing props to match the style of their owners. Studio No Border, a venture by designer Thomas Romain alongside a team of international artists, were hired for this tricky skateboard design role; this is likely based on their successful stunt with Bones and Shinichiro Watanabe on Carole & Tuesday, where they handled world design duties. Romain and his colleague Stanislas Brunet also boast of experience as main designers for Shoji Kawamori’s various unpredictable endeavors, a past that might prove helpful for this project’s unique needs.
The rest of the team appears to be coming from producer Suzuki’s contact book, with a plethora of talented people adjacent to studio Bones. Background art director Yumiko Kondo, color designer Yukari Goto, and 3DCG director Yota Ando are a trio returning from Suzuki’s previous TV series Bungou Stray Dogs, but my personal interest lies particularly in Photography Director Masataka Ikegami: a core member of Bones’ own compositing team. Ikegami is in my eyes a very ambitious compositor who recently hasn’t been blessed with the most fitting projects. My Hero Academia‘s aesthetic simply wasn’t made for advanced photography techniques, while Carole & Tuesday was produced under extremely tight time constraints. Only his proper TV series debut Blood Blockade Battlefront allowed him to tap into his true potential, and since then he’s been Rie Matsumoto’s go-to photography director; now that’s a fact that speaks highly of technical skill. On SK8 the Infinity, he’s at last working in a fitting and comfortable environment, alongside a director who’s very much used to exploiting the talent of notable photography teams due to her past at Kyoto Animation. And so far, so good!
Speaking of which, Utsumi’s background is also relevant when it comes to the animators she’s been able to gather. While there aren’t many top ex-KyoAni animators out there, for the simple reason that they rarely leave the company, a lot of SK8‘s trickiest and most emotionally resonant sequences so far have been animated by old coworkers of hers, with Chiyoko Ueno taking the crown. Borrowing Kevin’s words, she once was the best non-designer animation director at the studio, and she recently impressed all her new colleagues with her work for Makoto Shinkai’s latest feature Weathering with You. Accompanied by other capable folks like Yu-Gi-Oh superstar Takahiro Kagami—a franchise Utsumi’s a big fan of, incidentally—it’s safe to say that we’re in for a visual treat. Whether SK8 the Infinity ends up being a compelling story beyond that or not is up in the air, but it’s still an easy recommendation based on the staff’s pedigree and the sheer creative passion. At worst we will end up with just pure fun time, so what’s there to lose?
Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation (PV)
Director, Series Composer: Manabu Okamoto
Assistant Series Director: Hiroki Hirano
Character Designer: Kazutaka Sugiyama
Assistant Character Designer: Yochiko Saito
Prop Designer: Ryo Imamura, Shigeyuki Koresawa, Tom, Michiru Odaka
Art Director: Masakazu Miyake
Photography Director: Shinji Tonsho
Kevin: On a surface level, Mushoku Tensei has been an attractive offering since its reveal via a spectacular teaser trailer. The combined forces of Shingo Fujii and Ryo Imamura—plus the exceptional team that gathered around them, of course—were channeled into a couple of minutes that simply embodied adventure. The former applied the same grand vision of his battlefields to the setting as a whole, making the prospect of exploring it equals parts frightening and exciting, while the latter’s supervision gave that extra sharpness to the already outstanding animation. As a pre-animated piece of footage meant solely to get fans excited, though, would a new studio like Bind be capable of delivering quality anywhere near that level for the show itself?
As it turns out, the newcomer aura surrounding the studio was more misleading than the quality of the teaser. Bind was actually co-founded by White Fox, a piece of trivia you might have been able to infer directly from the show based on the fact that both series directors Manabu Okamoto and Hiroki Hirano have ties to the studio, how various WF branches are regular contributors to minor aspects of its production, or the fact that their president is specifically thanked at the end of each episode. What’s more relevant to the creative process, however, is the show’s animation producer: Bind founding member and president Toshiya Otomo. Back at studio 8-bit, he’d already been in charge of titles chockful of this generation’s most adventurous character-focused animators, directly managing the production of the show’s best episodes too. Anyone familiar with that work might immediately recognize not just all the names from the heavily overlapping team of acting specialists, but also the shared animation philosophy when it comes to the articulation of character’s minute mannerisms.
At this point you’ve probably noticed the two simple but decisive aspects that put the production on the right track: they had access to talented creators aware of their strengths, and the higher-ups were taking the entire project seriously enough to establish this new environment for them to do their thing. With that in mind, the ample schedule they’ve been granted and their effective moves in reaching out to other creative hubs to address the project’s needs feel perfectly natural; and it should be, but this is anime, so it’s often not. It’s important to keep in mind that Mushoku Tensei has, in some ways, a nearly unprecedented scope in TV anime—something you’ll get a feel off early on, but that only becomes obvious over time. And it’s precisely that: the passage of time requiring constant revisions to designs (hence Yochiko Saito assisting main designer Kazutaka “totos” Sugiyama), but also the many locations they visit, new characters that show up, cultures with their own prop requirements, and so on. Forget making the animation look good, just allowing this show to exist takes a tremendous amount of work. While it’s not a unique setting, it sure is a vast one!
Having such a collection of disparate, constantly evolving elements on the screen means that more than ever you need the compositing process to give cohesion to it all, and I’m glad to say photography director Shinji Tonsho is doing a good job at it. Though he’s taken a pretty modern approach when it comes to the depiction of the magic and its effects, his overall approach leans towards the old-school. The heavy treatment of the linework to add imperfections has become a common approach for projects that want to channel that energy, but the way Mushoku Tensei couples all of that with cohesive digital grain makes it come across as a weirdly nostalgic cel-era adventure series with beautiful modern flourishes. That harmony makes the isolated scenes that don’t stick to it feel quite awkward, but on the whole his team has succeeded at a task trickier than it looks.
It’s easy to see all those qualities intertwined through the first few episodes. Throughout the protagonist’s quest to master simple water magic we get to appreciate constant adjustments to his design as he ages, that penchant for threedimensional environments to give extra oomph to the spells that’s so typical of Fujii, the uncompromised acting a team like this is capable of, and even Tonsho’s compositing giving an almost practical effects-like flair that fits the show’s overall aesthetic. And if you’re afraid that this superb quality will inevitably go down the drain as the schedule gets tighter, keep in mind that they’ve essentially wrapped up the first run of the show already, so it should be safe from collapse even as fatigue creeps in.
A perfect adaptation, then? If you’re a fan of the original work it might as well be, and you can move on to another entry. If you’re not, though, maybe stick around some more. I always try to check out the source material of adaptation for these previews, or at least the most reasonably accessible previous incarnation of any work that seems to have potential. Which is to say, I was perfectly aware that Mushoku Tensei‘s protagonist is a very abrasive creep; obviously at his worst at the start of the series, but still capable of making my eyes roll back into the depths of my skull even as he grows up. It’d be disingenuous of me to say that I find him offensive: I know a lot of people will, rightfully so, but personally I just find him tremendously grating even with Tomokazu Sugita’s wonderful non-acting. Enough to probably sour me on this whole thing. Forget buying into the clumsy attempts at his characterization, it’s hard to stand his mere existence with the inner monologues kick in.
It’d be easy to put the blame on Okamoto as the director and writer of this adaptation, but while I feel he could have done a much better job at establishing him as someone who needs to grow without being so off-putting, I think the issue runs deeper than that. So deep that even the early pieces of promotional material like the anime’s teaser website already had that same nerdy smugness to their taglines, that the PVs always made sure to feature scenes like the protagonist’s schemes to look at Roxy’s panties. As easy it’d be to reduce the focus or outright remove all that crap, they’ve clearly deemed it integral to Mushoku Tensei‘s identity. If right now you’re upset that some people don’t seem to be fond of a series that you probably love for other reasons, maybe redirect that fury towards the decision to put the worst part of it on a pedestal rather than dunking it on the trash like an otherwise excellent adaptation project should have.
Kevin: I hesitated a bit when it came to choosing one final title to give a major spotlight to. Between rich atmospheres like Otherside Picnic‘s and very efficient productions like Kemono Jihen, I was spoiled for choice for a change. In the end, going with 2.43 Seiin High School Boys Volleyball Team felt like the right choice, since it’s got a bit of column A and a bit of column B. Although the subject matter is a notorious pain in the ass even among sports, Yasuhiro Kimura‘s dynamic direction allows the team to take shortcuts and yet keep it quite thrilling. This is the opposite approach not just of Haikyuu‘s exceptionally sturdy production, to whom everyone will keep drawing parallels to thanks to the volleyball theme, but also to Kazuki Akane’s uncompromising attitude throughout Stars Align—a sports series it shares actual DNA with, as their tone can get equally dark and Yuichi Takahashi acted as the designer and chief animation director for both.
That said, 2.43 is worth looking at not just in relation to other titles in the same genre space, but also as its own beast. What appears to set it apart since the very start is the strong feeling of place that it’s got. The remoteness of the location has understated but everpresent effects on the narrative, the cast made sure to heavily emphasize the thick accent of the locals versus the kid who moved, and Studio Pablo does not disappoint when it comes to capturing that atmosphere into the background art; with the veterans too busy running the company and the newer generations perhaps spread too thin across multiple projects, the studio may be past their prime, but what was once the best art team in television still does great work that reinforces this cohesive depiction of the setting. This specificity in their depiction of the setting also leads to a character saying yayo a lot, which means this is my number one recommendation of the season for the sasakids out there.
Pui Pui Molcar (PV)
Director, Writer: Tomoki Misato
Storyboarder: Tomoki Misato, Hana Ono, Katsura Sato
Stop Motion Animator: Ikuko Iwatsuki, Katsura Sato, Makoto Takano, Tomoki Misato
Kevin: Nevermind, there’s something else worth highlighting. When asked to summarize Pui Pui Molcar‘s appeal, director, co-author, and right about everything Tomoki Misato said it’s all about guinea pigs who’ve turned into cars. Elegant, direct to the point, and vaguely nightmarish—much like this masterpiece.
You’ve probably noticed that so far we’ve avoided touching on the sequels, and the reason for that is fairly simple. To some degree, there’s the fact that people are more acquainted with their returning teams, but that’s hardly the main reason; after all, production staff does change in between seasons sometimes, and so do the circumstances where those people are made to work. The actual reason is more specific to this unique season: there simply are way too many of them. The latest entries of a few massive properties everyone knew would come, sequels for even more decently sized hits that have finally arrived after taking longer than expected, and even a fair share of more obscure titles getting unexpected second seasons, all happening right now. Since we’d be here all day if we were to go one by one, we decided to instead summarize the situation by grouping together all those sequels according to the state of their production.
- Same as ever, and that’s good: The likes of Beastars 2 and Yuru Camp Season 2 keeping not just their capable core staff but their most interesting guest creators is not exciting if all you like is surprises, but quite so if you’re just here because you enjoy a good cartoon. I almost feel bad for Non Non Biyori: Nonstop for landing on the same season as the latter, as a less popular title that also aims for that audience looking for quirky yet heavily atmospheric relaxing times, but its quiet opener showed tremendous confidence in its formula so who am I to question it. Tensura S2 is also back as if it’d never left, even following its tradition of dangerously stylish OP/ED by its renowned designer Ryouma Ebata; while we can’t take his presence for granted in the show itself, his angular art and the dance-like quality to the action has permeated strongly into the title’s own identity. As someone who happily lived in the database, I also have to add that Log Horizon is back without any major shakeups this time around despite yet another designer change. It was never a particularly ambitious animation effort in the first place, as the focus was always on an intricate narrative now I find myself having to read up on again. Curse you, tax evasion related long breaks.
- For the good and the bad, we’re still here: Leaving aside the obscenely good opening and ending, The Promised Neverland S2 is still a mixed bag. Series director Mamoru Kanbe will alternate moments of brilliance like the laugh out loud introduction that gracefully summarizes the protagonist’s impossible levels of optimism, as well as the smartly constructed layouts that emphasize vast space with a group of kids that had never experienced the outside before, with some puzzling priorities when it comes to the narrative and terribly unexciting horror once things are shown rather than implied. On the other hand, Re:Zero Season 2 Part 2‘s issues have nothing to do with creative decisions—if anything, its team gets everything so right that they sort of make you forget that they’re in deep trouble. White Fox is simply a depleted studio, and having failed to put together a team that can support the ambition of series director Masaharu Watanabe, the core staff are forced to do a ridiculous amount of work. While for the most part they can still hit the high notes the series deserves, they should have never been put in this situation. Oh, and Dr. STONE: STONE WARS exists.
- Oh boy, please be safe: Even with one questionable arc around the end, Cells at Work was some of the most fun edutainment I’d seen in a while. Studio David Production has also grown in neat ways, attracting an interesting circle of creators and making their job easier by developing an efficient pipeline that makes it less likely for projects to fall apart. Which is why is kind of a shame that the sequel is in a bit of a rough spot: not at risk of completely imploding by any stretch, but by all means tighter than a sequel with fewer episodes should be. In a way, the most interesting aspect about its comeback is actually the sibling series Cells at Work Code Black, which I was ready to write off as a pointless edgy spinoff until I saw it’s a bitter condemnation of awful work cultures and exploitative practices; now if only it wasn’t being made by another overly busy anime studio. I could say similar things about Show by Rock Stars: as interesting as I find the fact that an all-stars season is being made by a collection of creators from each iteration of the series, including the one that was produced at a different studio, Kinema Citrus clearly weren’t fully prepared to handle this, so the rough edges are obvious since the very start.
- Radical changes can be alright: We’ve gone through a lot of iterative sequels, but what about the ones that essentially start anew? While it obviously follows up on the first season’s plot, The Quintessential Quintuplets 2 changed hands and approaches in a way I’d say is mostly beneficial… though that’s partly because the bar was quite low. It’s quite weird to see a team at Bibury known for going all out approaching this project so conservatively, and the studio’s decision to entrust newbies with high responsibility tasks—starting with designer and chief supervisor Masato Katsumata—could backfire at some point, but when your young animators are this good, why not rely on them? Even when subject to limitations, a new team can truly be a breath of fresh air, as World Trigger 2 can attest to. A sequel to a rather infamous production where notable creators underperformed due to the awful environment that’s turning things around under an excellent director in Morio Hatano and a much more reasonable buffer—good planning goes a long way!
- And things that look like radical changes aren’t always that substantial: If you were a big fan of Uma Musume, the news about the change in studios might have scared you. It’d be a lie to say that switching from P.A. Works to Studio KAI, yet another heir of the cursed Gonzo bloodline, is a meaningless change. But when it comes to the title’s appeal, it really isn’t that big of a deal. Beloved series director Kei Oikawa storyboarded most of the original series, and he’s back with that exact same attitude. And while the team he commands is different, even the animation is going to feel very familiar to existing fans; after all, KAI’s actual crew is chockful of Symphogear animators, exactly the same people that Uma Musume‘s original designer and chief animator Yousuke Kabashima has been working with for a long time. Yet another example of why you’re better off observing the individuals involved in the creative process than following studio names alone.
- I respect the fact that Uimama handled the original designs as well as the weekly Nijisanji cameos but this show is horseshit: Very specific category perhaps, but the new WIXOSS is a personal attack and I must retaliate. Forget this and instead go watch NijiBara, an incredible biweekly shitpost that’s fully committed to production jank and obscure references to the dead variety show it treats as the bible. I love it as much as the program itself hates one of its co-hosts.
You’d think that after going through dozens upon dozens of new titles, we’d be done highlighting all productions of note. And yet here we are, because this is the kind of season where we’ve got not one but two original Goro Taniguchi anime in Back Arrow and Skate-Leading Stars. While the former is much more classically Taniguchi—forming a power duo with Kazuki Nakashima to create mecha kingdoms built on opposing ideologies and bad puns—even the latter is a sharp sports series with perfectly balanced designs: elegant enough to fit the subject matter, but not too intricate to keep the skating animation feasible.
And speaking of balance, Kumo Desu ga also strikes a curious deal. The vast majority of the series features Yuuki Aoi talking to herself as the 3DCG fantasy spider the protagonist has been reborn as—amusing as a concept, and much better in execution thanks to her hilarious performance. As charming as their attempt to make those visuals cartoony are, though, the limitations of the CGi look like they drag the whole thing down… until we’re briefly transported to the lives of her much luckier classmates, who are now traditionally animated nobility with genuine theatrical animation quality. Although later episodes don’t match the highs of the premiere when it comes to 2D intricacy, the contrast remains very much a thing, so Shin Itagaki has succeeded in recontextualizing the limitations of the project into somewhat part of the narrative. And people dared to doubt the Teekyuu genius after Berserk‘s fiasco.
Even as you take a look at projects with more fundamental issues, this is a season where highly idiosyncratic atmospheric directors like Takuya Sato and Shigeyasu Yamauchi are coming back in major ways. The former is doing a frankly excellent job given the cards he’s been given: Otherside Picnic starts with a chilling declaration of intent and remains that immersive throughout… until the arbitrary, immersion-shattering 3D shots kick in, accompanied by sometimes less than ideal traditional animation as well. Considering the show’s ample schedule, I shudder to think how messy it’d have gotten if they’d rushed it out. That said, he’s a good director working with solid material, which is what I wish I could say about Yamauchi—and it’s not his skill that I’m putting into question! Between his comeback and Mamoru Oshii‘s not-really-seasonal-but-I-must-mention-it Vlad Love, I’m starting to doubt even time itself. Mostly in a good way, though!
So What’s Even Happening With This Industry Anymore
This has been the longest seasonal analysis we’ve done to date, and with quite the glowing positive tone too. Looking at this list of titles, this is by all means shaping up to be a very solid season, with clear standouts and relatively diverse time-sinkers. And yet, isn’t it weird? Winter has traditionally been on the thinner side, for the simple reason that it’s awkward when it comes to monetization; it spans months were people have a tendency to spend less money and goes right up till the end of the fiscal year, which considering how a fair chunk of purchases tend to come in the period immediately after the broadcast ends, makes it kind of an awkward season for production committees. This explains why there are usually fewer titles, and usually not many high profile ones—with obvious exceptions, as so much TV anime gets made that a few big titles are going to end up being broadcast in the winter anyway.
Although financial viability doesn’t correlate to artistic brilliance, it’s impossible to deny that there’s a link between them here. TV anime is an art of compromise, and when the higher-ups think you’re working on something that’s essentially a throwaway project, the resources and time you’ll be given will be reduced to the point where fulfilling whatever genius vision you may have had becomes nearly impossible. And thus, as a season with an often smaller selection of titles that are generally seen as less important, winter has traditionally been a tough time. With that in mind, take another look at this season: multiple high-profile original offerings, countless sequels that happen to include some of the biggest titles of the past decade, and by sheer volume a lot more new series than we’ve seen over the last few seasons. So again, isn’t that weird?
If your response is “of course it’s weird, we’re living through a goddamn pandemic that’s changed everything” then congratulations for being correct, and my condolences on having had to live through 2020. We’ve mentioned in passing that a bunch of the shows we highlighted have been in the works for a long time, so you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that a lot of them were actually delayed. Not always publicly so, mind you, but these titles still had deadlines for the staff and even licensing pitches that they ended up pushing back many months, as working through a pandemic and multiple states of alarm is disruptive even for an industry that generally ignores common sense. TV shows are rarely granted the delays they often need, but due to products involved in crossmedia efforts also being delayed and the loss of efficiency in extended WFH situations, this forced many committees to finally make the right choice.
Right now we’re seeing the positive effects of those decisions taken last year, on multiple levels at that. A whole lot more properly managed shows have landed in this season than they would in any normal winter, and their quality proves that having given those teams more time generally pays off. Not always, of course; cases like Re:Zero and Otherside Picnic also tell us that unplanned delays and long production cycles still can’t address more fundamental problems, but even then a delay will assuage the pain somewhat. Stretching schedules has caused some new issues—I recall a comment by an in-between checker about how elongating a project had led to her getting paid a bit less relative to the time spent on the project—but the overall effect has been undeniably positive, as the current season proves. Chances are that this will keep happening over the next few seasons (did you know a certain dragon show was quietly delayed and is on track to finish its production months before the broadcast?) so you can look forward to some consistently produced anime for a change.
Are we in a backward world where the pandemic has been good for anime, then? No, of course not. While on this site we prefer to focus on great works that have resonated with us, we also tend to talk a lot about how the road to those is often paved with better working conditions than the norm, so we can’t just ignore how awful the past year was for many teams. Most studios simply powered through the worst moments of 2020 and are facing the current state of alarm with essentially the same attitude. Small projects are crashing harder than ever, as you can see with early episodes breaking records of supervisors required, and even though the pandemic gave corporations the easiest excuse in the world to push back their works, some of the biggest titles still committed to their intended release timeframes—both Love Live and Attack on Titan‘s latest iterations having done this is frankly repulsive.
When you take a look at the industry as a whole, you notice that the actual trend is opening up a rift between decently managed projects and the messy ones. It’s becoming a bit more common to see TV shows that have a comfortable buffer when approaching the broadcast, but at the same time, the titles that are screwed from the get-go have it even worse than before; and who knew that was even possible, honestly. While this is something that was already occurring before (in part thanks to new actors like worldwide streaming platforms and the need to get early approvals in some countries), the pandemic has accelerated it to a point where these are no longer hypotheticals but something we clearly observe in a season to season basis. And the actual tragedy is that it brings us closer to a point where making TV anime will only be possible for massive production powerhouses that have a tendency to operate as assembly lines. Only they can afford to both work on long-term commitments sometimes without immediate gain and also commit an unreasonable amount of resources to troublesome titles with no schedule to speak of—which is how Attack on Titan is barely avoiding collapse.
I know it’s kind of a downer to end a positive look at a good new batch of cartoons like this, but it felt necessary to help people understand the situation. I’ve noticed comments about the high quality of this season’s best offerings having been achieved in spite of the current circumstances, when that’s not quite the case; without trying to downplay the effort and vision behind them, those titles are a natural outcome of this increasingly more polarized industry. If you work with producers predisposed to be understanding, your conditions may be getting noticeably better. If that’s not the case… good luck out there. As a viewer, you should carry on appreciating the work of the former group of course, but keep in mind that this enjoyable season also casts a dark shadow.