Most Wonder Egg Priority episodes so far have been fantastic first time showings by newbie directors, but what is it about this team’s approach that allows them to channel fresh creative energy so much better than their peers? And at the same time, what are the logistical and even thematical problems derived from their approach?
For those following anime, or any creative scene for that matter, few things are as exciting as the rise of new talent. Their fresh ideas, the possibility to start anew without the built-up inertia that makes it hard for creators to change trajectory, that desire to embrace new tools and pipelines, their sheer energy, and so on—it’s obvious why there are benefits to giving new generations an opportunity. On paper, it’s an undeniably positive thing. In execution, like many other things in this industry, it’s more complicated.
As it turns out, that idea of “giving youngsters an opportunity” often lacks an element that should be implied: it has to be a fair opportunity. So while we’re currently seeing young creators receive promotions faster than ever, this is no planned initiative coming from a place of good faith, but rather an act of desperation to address the fact that anime’s talent is spread way too thin. Although the industry’s structural lack of proper training mechanisms affects entry jobs the worst, even newbie directors and supervisors are often left to their own devices, praying they land in one of the rare teams capable of giving them real guidance.
And if they don’t? Even patently skilled new directors often find themselves grappling with mixed feelings about pulling off interesting yet flawed work. For example, one with missteps as simple to address as continuity errors, which went unchecked because the studio that purposely targets flashy young animators to handle their works kept the slightly more experienced chief director too busy to step in; don’t look at me, I said no names. At worst, as you can imagine, the consequences of not supporting new directors and supervisors can be burning them out so bad that they give up on anime altogether—if even climbing the ladder can’t lead them to a satisfying job, why should they stick around at all? A promotion that should be a reason for celebration often turns sour in that way.
As an individual title produced by a freelancing-heavy studio, Wonder Egg Priority isn’t here to address those structural problems; it’s beyond its scope, and frankly speaking, it’s not its duty either. What it has already succeeded at, however, is at building one of those uncommon hubs of young talent where most people—from new animators to directors making their debut—do receive the support they need, not from existing infrastructure but from their own colleagues. Despite having burned through the production buffer they once had, with a team resting on the shoulders of youngsters on right about every level, all these novice directors and supervisors are putting together near impeccable work. And perhaps more importantly, I keep coming across comments of theirs mentioning that they’d love to be involved with this crew again, doing even more work with them if possible. Now that’s a sign that something’s being done right.
To understand that something, and also to root all that conceptual praise into something more concrete, let’s go back to WEP—and especially this most recent batch of episodes. We left off the show after the Rika-focused third episode, which as I’d mentioned in the latest production notes, was a sharp, purposeful, frankly stunning directorial debut for Yuki Yonemori. And just as deliberate as his work was the animation supervision by Iori Hisatake and Kerorira; the two were also handling an entire episode for the first time, but still succeeded at adding a uniquely farcical quality to Rika’s animation, modulating the timing itself as a non-verbal showcase of the outwards persona she protects herself with.
How do you follow up such a crazy youngster debut, then? With another one of course, albeit one with a very different flavor. While it was the first time Yuichiro Komuro got to storyboard an episode, as well as Yuzu Hori’s debut as animation director, their work and the road that led to it were quite different this time around. I wouldn’t hesitate to call Yonemori a genius: someone who’s worked hard to polish his draftsmanship for sure, but also possessing the innate sensibilities to immediately push him way beyond his own technical skill. On the other hand, Komuro’s been more the type to quietly grind those skills over a longer period of time; a decade in the industry is hardly that long of a time, but it has allowed him to train as in-betweener at P.A. Works, gradually develop his skills as a freelance key animator all over the industry, and even give animation supervision a spin too.
I believe that kind of experience helped him gain a broader understanding of animation, but even with that in mind, his work in this fourth episode is still extraordinary. In contrast to Yonemori’s awe-inspiring intangibles, Komuro’s greatness in this episode feels almost mechanical, as if he’d been doing this all his life—and in a way, that’s even more impressive. His first storyboard is packed with consideration that debut works rarely ever have. You can see glimpses of it in the way the trees naturally enclose Ai and company as they feel trapped, the countless reflections in an episode that introduces a character who struggles with gender and presentation, the more basic but effective visual metaphors, and perhaps most notably, the way it manages to intertwine two fights; not just synchronizing them to the music, but also carrying the momentum between the two setpieces as our point of view switches. If the previous episode was the kind of viscerally satisfying masterpiece that speaks directly to the soul, this one’s fascinating in that it’s got the competence you’d expect from a wise veteran… except it was also made by a novice director.
As is often the case with WEP, that elegant delivery stepped up its game even further when tackling the delicate themes. The very first scene presented weekly egg girl Miwa as she confessed the source of her trauma to Momo, our last main character. And it did so through a layout that emphasized that, despite having only just met her, she’d invited her into her innermost private space. Establishing this was very important because Momo’s own trauma appears to have its roots in a tragic homosexual relationship that even changed the way she presents herself, hence why the egg system constantly surrounding her with girls who are fast to trust and even fall in love with her is particularly cruel.
The fact that this system is exploitative and its avatars the closest to a concrete evil this show has should be self-evident—as seen in a conversation I want to talk about later—but it’s this understated way to show us their cruelty rather than just being told they’re bad guys through the dialogue that makes it hit so hard. In another episode fraught with tragedy and showcases of physical pain, it’s the uncomfortable side glances Momo unconsciously does when they romantically approach her, especially if they praise traditionally masculine qualities in her, that end up stinging the most. Assuming Momo’s being deliberately put in these situations, those mannequins must be spiteful to the bone, carcass, or whatever they’ve got.
Back to the episode itself, though, because its animation managed to feel similarly deliberate. Rika’s reappearance retained her distinct timing, and after the increased abstraction in the third episode, the action dialed up the physicality again—an adequate but unsettling change in an episode where Momo fights a molester—to the point where even the exaggerated effects that adorned it emphasized the tangible consequences.
If I were to nitpick, I’d point out that despite the impressive action and polished character art, Hori didn’t seem to always have the precision required to give that same nuance to the quieter scenes. Do you know how you can address that, though? By dragging Yukiko Horiguchi from semi-retirement to assist on the animation process. I’ve said enough about Naoko Yamada’s tremendous influence on the people calling the shots for WEP, but it’s still funny to see them rely on the person who was her best colleague, friend, and arguably the second most important individual when it came to establishing that school of direction. And yes, this is another reminder that there is another one of Yamada’s greatest allies at the time they could be calling. C’mon Umehara, I know you want to!
After back to back episodes in the hands of complete newcomers, #05 was a bit of a change of pace. Not so much on the supervision front, as Hirohiko Sukegawa is very much in the early stages of his animation director career, but rather when it comes to storyboarder and episode director Shinichiro Ushijima. Having trained at studio Madhouse and matured during Hunter x Hunter 2011’s production, Ushijima became deeply acquainted with members of this team during 2018’s I Want to Eat Your Pancreas, while he was sort of reinventing himself. A good chance meeting, as it turns out.
Ushijima appears to be one of the directors greatly influenced by the 1-2 theatrical anime punch of 2016—which is to say, Your Name and Koe no Katachi. Although you could see glimpses of that in his previous work, Ushijima adopted unmistakenly Shinkai-esque beautifully composited close-ups to personal belongings as the punctuation of his work, but with an overall tone more akin to Yamada’s. And of course, he learned how to make good use of high articulation acting specialists like WEP’s core animator Keisuke Kobayashi, who carried his movie so much he might have gotten some nasty back pain.
While the episode he directed may look like a bit of a breather for the narrative and the production itself, I’d argue that it told us important things about both. WEP had been moving so fast that the audience never had a second to ask themselves why the cast would stick together on such a dangerous mission, and it’s once it slowed down that it became obvious. Their shared desire to find a place where they belong despite their misaligned goals—especially when it comes to Neiru—as well as Ai’s social gravitational pull that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a recluse are expertly underlined in this episode.
And, despite not being in the hands of a newbie director for once, the episode actually gave us more hints about WEP’s uncanny success at utilizing young talent… and any talent for that matter. It was once again peppered with flashbacks to Ai and Koito’s past, and just like they’d been in all prior cases, they were perfectly coherent with the delivery of the first episode and with the overarching character writing. One of my favorite painful details hidden in these was actually in the third episode, which showed the enthusiastic way Ai used to open doors wide open during her happier time with Koito—a deliberate contrast with the very narrow openings she started leaving after the traumatic experience of seeing her embrace her teacher. I expect many other flashbacks to include details like that which will only become painful in retrospect; if you think WEP’s tough to digest, look forward to future rewatches being even more of a gut punch.
Given what I’ve said, and the fact that other aspects like the reliance on flower language have remained consistent across many episode directors and storyboarders, you should be able to tell who’s behind all of this. As the series director, it should be a given that it’s in fact Shin Wakabayashi who’s supporting this very inexperienced team and allowing all the pieces to click together, but again, things aren’t so simple. It’s important to keep in mind that this is also the first time he’s leading a project himself, and that the schedule is doing no one favors anymore. And yet, he’s shown to be a very proactive series director still, an integral piece in understanding why so many up-and-coming creators are managing to live up to their potential and then some, despite debuts in this industry being fraught with frustration.
The sixth episode was, you’ve guessed it, yet another directorial debut. In a way, it was the most standard one yet: not because its quality was any less exceptional, but rather because it represents a more common way to rise up the ranks. All other episodes of WEP have had a single person—stealth Wakabayashi contributions aside—handling both storyboarding and episode direction duties. I’ve always found that approach to be ideal whenever possible, as it allows for a fuller realization of their vision than you often get by splitting the tasks, but it can be too much to chew for a newcomer. With that in mind, the promotion process is often gradual, with teams allowing youngsters to become acclimated with just episode direction before handling the full creative and managerial workload.
A solid, readable storyboard can go a long way to ease them in, and that’s exactly what Keisuke Shinohara’s work did. Shinohara’s actually growing a solid reputation as a great complement, the kind of creator most fans might not notice, but that all ambitious directors love to have around; hence why he’s already assisted brilliant creators like Masaaki Yuasa, Kiyotaka Oshiyama, Yoh Yoshinari, Hiroshi Kobayashi, and so on. This time around, his boards focused on subjectivity: directly so with immersive shots, but also in subtler ways when it comes to the framing. It showed in the contrast between how Ai’s teacher is seen in through eyes—radiant yet ominous—and her mom’s, or the way the egg world appeared much more ominous when framed through the perspective of the victim than the savior—let alone the embodiments of the system exploiting it.
Having such a focused storyboard turned out to be a godsend for novice episode director Yusuke “Nara” Yamamoto, whom I’ll be referring to by his nickname to avoid confusion with the mountain-climbing Yusuke Yamamoto we’ve often talked about. Nara’s animation has been known for years for its bouncy liveliness, and its somewhat transgressive edge in how he’s perfectly willing to drop drawing count and level of detail, especially with his wonderful shorthand designs. You’d think that an animator so naturally suited for comedic work would be a poor fit for a particularly somber episode in a show like WEP, but if there’s another thing he’s proven to have, is the ability to think outside the box and use that to adapt to different registers.
And that he did! While Shinohara’s storyboard deserves much of the praise, it’s the usage of color in its execution to regulate the mood that stuck with me the most, as well as the very precise tempo of the episode. You’ve got neat ideas like tying the delivery of the emotional beats that Ai goes through to a meal, from her early unease to the shock once she hears that her mom wants to date the teacher who’d attempted to help her yet might be involved in some way in her best friend’s death. And then, delivery that elevates them even further, especially the latter; the quick pan as the news literally drop on her, the usage of silence, isolation, and the egg seeping through, in the same way that the presence of Ai’s teacher in her household leaked into one of the few safe spaces she felt like she had. That’s one delicious meal that makes you feel completely awful. And hungry. Thanks for the tasty-looking food drawings that might as well be a clump of 2DFX, Kerorira.
As a bit of a side note, it’s worth pointing out that Nara is one of the many Dogakobo-adjacent creators who have contributed to this show. That includes this episode’s animation director Jun Yamazaki and the aforementioned Sukegawa, as well as some of the most important key animators in the project like Takuya Niinuma, to name a few noteworthy individuals. It’d be easy to chalk it all up to the fact that animation producer Shouta Umehara used to work at Dogakobo, and has a very special relationship with many of them; Nara himself is someone he holds as emblematic of his desire to seek fresh talent online, while Yamazaki is a great friend of his with whom he teamed up in his first showing as animation producer.
However, that doesn’t explain cases like Niinuma’s, who was barely a newbie in-betweener by the time Umehara was on his way out of Dogakobo. How come he and others in a similar position have also ended up working on WEP, then? The truth is simply that Dogakobo’s got an animation culture that leans towards thorough yet exaggerated acting, that idea of turning up the volume slider to realistic ideas that I said WEP was built upon. In recent years, and perhaps because the shows they make aren’t quite as crazy as before, they’ve started emphasizing more the smaller nuances and authentic volume to their character art, which is also something that a title like WEP greatly benefits from. Which is to say: even if its animation producer wasn’t a Dogakobo expat, WEP would likely feature a bunch of talent adjacent to that studio.
This finally brings us to the last episode in this batch, which if you’ve read this far, you’ll be able to guess was another directorial debut. Maiko Kobayashi’s story is one of unsurprising excellence, to the point that I already called that she would become a great director alongside this exact same team a couple years ago. Her fanatical precision has allowed her to become arguably Wakabayashi’s most reliable ally, as she proved in projects like 22/7 short films, where she stood out not just as a solo key animator but beginning to handle smaller scope directorial work.
Kobayashi’s first full-length storyboards have the subtlety that WEP deems necessary when dealing with themes like Rika’s self-harm, which is to say, none at all; elegance, for the most part yes, but she’s not one to beat around the bush—be it with the graphic violence or the visual representation of the themes. You can’t go a single sequence without seeing imagery trapping Rika, but at the same time, those bars and cages aren’t particularly ominous, because her real problem isn’t being trapped by the memory of her missing father, but rather having lost the will to move forward even as she inflicts pain on herself as motivation. While the episode is tough to watch, I felt like a walked off it with a better understanding of the inherent contradictions that make Rika’s character so interesting.
If you’ve lost the count, that brings us to 4 directorial debuts across 7 episodes thus far, with a few first-time supervisors too; starting of course with designer Saki Takahashi, who’s acting as chief animation director for the first time. All of this, in a show handled by a novice series director as well. Although young directors like Wakabayashi have a tendency to rely on other up-and-coming creators, the degree to which he has done that—and succeeded at it—is truly extraordinary. I’ve explained and alluded to many of the reasons that have made this possible: the fact that WEP has been a long time in the works despite their current scheduling problems, how Wakabayashi and Umehara’s eye for the specific type talent they need, the former’s hands-on guidance of the team, and so on. At the end of the day, though, this is no strict recipe for success you could apply to any project: it’s the obscene precision of Wakabayashi’s vision for WEP and his understanding of the team, both way beyond his experience, that are making it all click. That’s a genius for you!
Does that mean this batch of episodes has been flawless, then? Of course not. For as much as there is to praise about the team’s approach, some problems relating to it have started rearing their nasty heads, so I can’t end this without mentioning them. I know people are already panicking about the sudden announcement of a recap episode, but it’s important to understand the problems this particular production is facing, because they’re not really comparable to your usual rushed project that never stood a chance.
As you’ve likely noticed if you skim through the staff lists we attach to these production notes, WEP’s lineup is actually very thin. Despite having connections with talented animators all over the world, that selectiveness when it comes to appointing staff has translated into a core group of animators who handle most of the workload in nearly every single episode, while at the same time giving them directorial and supervision roles. This is combined with a traditional approach to animation direction too, meaning that all episodes so far have had a single main supervisor that dyed each episode with their unique flavor.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with having a tightly knit small team—in fact, I’d even say it’s preferable if you can pull it off. A crew full of artists who’d already been selected according to their compatibility with this type of material have grown very knowledgeable about the cast, which allows them to give a specificity to the character acting and coherence to the action that would be very hard to achieve otherwise.
But as you can imagine, having the same dozen people animate the vast majority of the show starts to become a problem when you’re several weeks into the broadcast and the deadlines have started haunting you. While WEP has been in the works for nearly two years, everyone’s racing against the clock now, and that’s got consequences beyond the already deplorable stress that all these people are having to endure. Given that compromising on the quality is not something anyone in this team wants, and how invested in this model of production they appear to be, the lesser evil solution they appeared to take was… kicking the problem down the line. The lists of 2nd key animators have become astonishingly large over the course of the show, which in this case indicates that this small team of regular animators is putting out increasingly rougher sequences to be able to keep up with this approach.
Does that spell disaster for the second half of the show? I’m not one for doomsaying, but despite so much of WEP‘s staff having the sad badge of honor of specializing on surviving bad schedules, there’s no denying that things will get somewhat worse, or rather, they already have; staff members who’ve worked on upcoming episodes have a rather dim outlook about its fate. Because of that, I’d expect them to finally compromise and begin relying on more animation directors at some point down the line to make things somewhat manageable, and maybe sneak in a fully outsourced episode as a breather, but this team is frankly so crazy I wouldn’t take even that for granted. And even then, that alone still wouldn’t be a solution.
Do you want to know what’s the biggest bummer about this situation, though? That we’ve got a very passionate team who are otherwise enjoying their experience a whole lot, and yet now they have to suffer because the schedule has gotten impossibly tight. Given how long it’s been in the works and how obvious it was that Wakabayashi’s approach is tremendously ambitious, a delay would have done wonders for it.
While the production woes derived from their approach are very disappointing, it’s the thematic cracks to the eggshell that have me more worried about the actual content of the series. To put it plainly, I’ve run out of reasons to give the benefit of the doubt to writer Shinji Nojima, especially after the interviews he’s been giving.
You may recall a conversation in the fourth episode that spurred a bit of controversy. Acca and Ura-Acca—still the foulest names in a show with Ohto “odd-eye” Ai as the protagonist—argued that the eggs only contained girls because suicide cases are fundamentally different between genders, with men following logical reasons while women do so because of more ambiguous emotional reasons. Characters like Neiru reacted poorly to that ridiculous statement, and even Wakabayashi himself stepped in on Twitter to explain that it was on him for trimming that scene, as it originally was meant to have a more explicit refusal of that statement. Personally speaking, I think the scene we got underlined that feeling well enough, but you can imagine my face when I had to read Nojima essentially echoing those words in an interview, contrasting men’s logical suicides with women’s fleeting, nebulous reasons to end their own lives as one of the reason’s why he’s writing this show in the first place.
It goes without saying that such a train of thought is completely incompatible with… well, everything WEP is doing. These episodes have exposed at great length, and with as much dignity as possible, that there are in fact very specific systemic issues pushing women to end their lives; the expectation to be capable but not too much, to maintain a specific kind of beauty with an inescapable expiration date, and not to fight against a system so clearly rigged against them. To then go and parrot your own villains means that despite bringing up those issues, you never interiorized why there’s a difference between the reasons men and women end their lives. And coming from the author of a work that focuses on this, it hurts.
The feeling that not everyone is on the same thematic page was noticeable in that same scene. After their ridiculous words, Acca and Ura-Acca ended up concluding that gender didn’t matter at all; something that’s more coherent with WEP’s message, but also completely divorced from the conversation they were having. It could just be that Nojima has messy ideas about this, but knowing for a fact that Wakabayashi altered that scene, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was the one who modified the script a bit to include that; it’s kinda suspicious how he made no reference to the complete turn, even though it was the one truly incoherent part of a scene he went out of his way to comment on about.
At the end of the day, I don’t expect WEP to completely fall apart thematically. Wakabayashi does outrank Nojima regardless of who the promotional materials showcase the most, and he’s made it clear where his heart is. The writer’s sensationalist edge can be smoothed out, and his sometimes half-baked ideas can also be addressed by an anime team that appears to really know what they’re doing. It would take an unprecedented disaster for WEP to implode, but when it comes to a show with the potential to be an all-time great, settling with a pretty good yet flawed result would be kind of a disappointment. Hopefully it doesn’t come down to that!
Key Animation: Keisuke Kobayashi, Harumi Yamazaki, Aoi Otani, Shouta Sannomiya, Naoya Takahashi, Miki Yoshikawa, Asaka Yokoyama, MYOUN, Toshiyuki Sato, Tatsuya Yoshihara, Jin Oyama, Yuki Akutagawa, Hirohiko Sukegawa, Yuichiro Komuro, Hiroki Ito, Yusuke Yamamoto, Danni Zhang, Hirotaka Hayashi, Jun Yamazaki, Yuzu Hori
Key Animation: Gem, Keito Oda, Morimori, MYOUN, Yuzuru Sakaura, Saori Hosoda, Harumi Yamazaki, Jin Oyama, Jun Yamazaki, Chinami Shibata, Hirohiko Sukegawa, Koichi Nakano, Aoi Otani, Yusuke Kawakami, Shinshuu Uchuu, Taisei Uchida, Hideaki Tsukioka, Haruka Tsuzuki, Akiko Motoyoshi, Fumiko Kon, Kana Ito, Asaka Yokoyama, Tsumokki, Danni Zhang, Keisuke Kobayashi
Key Animation: Yuzuru Sakaura, Ddasang, Jun Yamazaki, Moaang, Mariko Iguchi, Yui Aoki, Miyaso, Takeshi Osame, Yuki Matsuo, China, Kerorira, Shinshuu Uchuu, Yusuke Kawakami, Takuya Niinuma, Takashi Miyauchi, Moe Yamaguchi, Miki Yoshikawa, Keito Oda, Takuya Miyahara, Yusuke Yamamoto, Kana Ito, Keisuke Kobayashi, Noriyuki Imaoka
Key Animation: Masahisa Okubo, Yuzuru Sakaura, JiaMei Deng, Haruki Uchiyama, Isao Hayashi, Kerorira, Yuko Endo, Misumi Miyako, Asaka Yokoyama, Aoi Otani, Keisuke Kobayashi, Miki Yoshikawa, Maiko Kobayashi, Akiko Motoyoshi, Danni Zhang, Yusuke Kawakami, Jin Oyama, Harumi Yamazaki, Hiroomi Yamakawa, Thirteen Orphans, Kana Ito