SK8 The Infinity and Wonder Egg Priority are two original passion projects, both also being high-profile productions that have been in the works for a long time. Despite being exactly what anime needs on paper, they have crashed to the point where only extreme crunch might allow them to make it to the goal by the intended date. Understanding their distinct issues will help you grasp the nuance of TV anime’s structural problems.
We point towards a lack of time as the reason why TV anime productions crash left and right nowadays. That is objectively true, but much like saying most deaths are preceded by a cardiac arrest, it lacks some necessary information if you want to truly understand the causes; as it turns out, the pathologies and accidents behind each case can be pretty different, and we can’t even begin to think how to address them if everything gets vaguely grouped together. The problem is structural, and so will need to be its solution, but we’re lost if we can’t even figure out the distinct ways it manifests itself.
But why now, and why using those two titles as a jumping-off point? After all, TV projects falling apart are sadly common, and that does include high-profile ones as well. Right now we have arguably three global phenomena in a complete state of disarray in Attack on Titan, Re:Zero, and The Promised Neverland. The first one was a ticking bomb the moment that it got accepted by MAPPA with frankly impossible deadlines, Re:Zero has begun to show wider cracks in its production after an extremely impressive fight against the odds by a depleted studio, and Neverland… let’s just say that they spent so much time making questionable choices during pre-production that it was doomed since the start too. Chances are that all of them will make it to the end without extra delays, but that will have already required inhuman amounts of work and led to more than apparent hits to the quality of everyone’s output.
In contrast to those, SK8 and WEP feel like particularly illustrative examples of how insidious this industry’s problems actually are. And the reason is simple: on paper, they did everything right! We’re talking about two wildly unique original titles that its creators are very invested on, so regardless of how you feel about them—I love them—it’s hard to question their genuine drive. Concessions are always made when it comes to commercial products, but these are by no means cynical efforts that committees funded just to move around some cash and studios accepted to keep the flow of contracts going.
And at least in theory, these two titles also approached their production process in a reasonable fashion, allocating time to both the animation process and pre-production. Rushing the former even in cases where the time given to the animation process has become common at studios like MAPPA, leading to impressive looking movement for as long as the schedule doesn’t catch up to them, but aesthetics lacking any sort of cohesion and sense of identity. As you should be able to attest if you’ve been following SK8 and WEP, though, they’ve done a perfectly adequate job at conceptualizing worlds of their own.
That takes us to one of the first major pieces of information that gets lost when we oversimplify TV anime’s problem to be just about time. While asphyxiating schedules are behind every broken TV production, and truly brilliant works are often supported by smoother conditions, the truth is that some teams essentially specialize in materializing gold out of nowhere… and others couldn’t pull it off even with deadlines a decade away. That’s obviously not criticism of the individuals, but rather something that underlines the importance of specialists—something that anime runs very low on in many fields, especially with the ludicrous levels of overproduction we’ve seen for over a decade.
If you want your work to feel authentic conceptually and its execution to have a strong flavor, chances are that you’re going to have to go out of your way to rely on those specialists. Anime attracts key animators under the promise of giving them free rein over their shots, but even with the adaptability and skill many of them have, there’s simply no beating the craft of someone who’s dedicated their career to the depiction of effects, mechanical structures, bears, lunch boxes, and the act of undressing; yes, all of those are official, specific credits out there. This is where the production budget becomes a deciding factor as well, especially with roles that will involve the entirety of the production. While there will never be an exact correlation between money spent and quality of the animation as many fans still believe, going out of your way to contact those specialists to help you shape the entire setting of the work is costlier than handling it yourself, which leads to the scope of the work being determined by whether (or to which degree) you can do that.
While that’s a problem behind many TV anime feeling off for reasons that are hard to pinpoint, if we go back to SK8 and WEP, you’ll find that they’ve done an excellent job at gathering the right people for the job too. In WEP’s case, I’ve written at length about the very deliberate cherrypicking of acting specialists that allows them to strike a natural balance between authenticity and eye-catching exaggeration that’s perfect for the work, and the design choices for its fantastical elements that are similarly on-point. Similarly, Hiroko Utsumi has managed to balance a mix of her ex-coworkers delicacy with the skating madness that only uniquely intense animators like Takahiro Kagami can nail. And again, this is all supported by a lot of care being put into the setting and the specific subject matter.
These two titles did their homework right, avoiding all the early pitfalls that doom most TV anime and setting themselves up for great success in the process. From a purely creative standpoint, and if I pretend that these projects don’t exist further than the product that we can see on our screens, I’d say that they did succeed. The quality of their execution has taken a hit for sure, but it’s one that will go unnoticed by most untrained eyes, and thus hardly anything extraordinary when it comes to anime. And yet, here we are, with recap episodes for the both of them just to have an instant to breathe, and chilling comments by its creators all over social media that illuminate exactly how bad things are.
If you’re wondering how two major titles that did—and continue to do—so much right have led to anime creators used to nightmarish conditions saying that this is some of the most stressful work they’ve ever had to do, don’t feel too bad; we’ve got a Discord full of people attuned to this industry’s nonsense and keeping an eye on its developments, and a whole bunch of them still struggled to come to terms with exactly how screwed their situation is. I know I did myself!
Let’s start with SK8, then. If we were to oversimplify, its core issue would be summed up with “the team was way too small for the amount of work remaining, which is causing BONES to smash the panic button harder than they’ve had to do in a very long time”; but since this whole piece is about explaining the nuances that often get lost when describing the industry’s problems, let’s go a bit more in-depth. Yes, SK8’s staff rotation is indeed quite short. Credits never tell the full story, but they’re also not hiding the fact that the same group of people is handling the animation supervision in every single episode, and that even directorial duties constantly fall in the hands of the same folk like Takahiro Hasui.
This is even noticeable on a key animation level, as people like Naoki Okada and Hidenori Fukuoka have worked on every single episode so far. The latter is particularly notable, as not only has his animation remained impressive despite the ridiculous workload, but it also attached to a cute story. Being from Osaka, he was personally acquainted with KyoAniDo people like Utsumi… and yet was unable to work with them due to the studio’s unique circumstances, so nowadays he’s making good use of these opportunities.
If that sounds endearing and you’ve started to question whether working with a small team is even that bad of an option, you’re on the right track. If anything, it’s tightly-knit small teams that are more conducive to creative and practical success, for reasons that should be easy to understand if you’ve ever worked in a team. This industry struggles a lot with efficiency, partly because of its reluctance to move away from nonsense practices that have become tradition, and partly because there’s simply no managing a metric ton of titles a year in a sensible way. Gather the right small team, though, and it might be easier to keep everyone on the same page from an artistic standpoint, while keeping the studio dynamics easier to manage too. A great route to take, as long as you can handle the workload.
It’s those last words that will haunt the people who called the shots for SK8. For once, I don’t intend to put much of the blame on them. It’s very likely that given the time SK8’s production process was allocated, it would have finished just fine under normal circumstances. But as it turns out, 2020 wasn’t really normal circumstances, as the pandemic made that much-desired efficiency take a massive nosedive. Though it’s true that they could have reacted faster, this is the kind of problem that snowballs faster than you realize, and all time isn’t created equal anyway: as much as it would help, a delay for an already ongoing project is never a real solution.
The major lesson to draw from something like this isn’t that pandemics are kind of bad, which I hope is something that everyone’s aware of, but rather how unprepared the anime industry is for accidents. Now this as big of a calamity as they can possibly face, but even much smaller mishaps have thrown plenty of productions completely off the rails. Studios simply have very little room to pivot, which is no small issue when you consider how often things refuse to go as intended. BONES is an animation powerhouse very few can compare to, and even they will barely avoid death by having people from their other substudios join in a rush. Had it been another studio, we wouldn’t even be seeing SK8’s final episodes anytime soon—and that still wouldn’t mean that they’d get to make the finale at their leisure.
Compared to SK8’s accidental catastrophe, WEP’s situation is even more problematic, in no small part because it was somewhat predictable and deliberate. Last year, on the very same day it was presented alongside some fantastic looking footage, I noticed industry folks commenting that it must be close to completion if they’d polished it this much already… then others, closely acquainted with this team, saying that they’d been seeing everyone glued to their desks non-stop and with no sign of that changing anytime soon. When such alarming flags are raised months before the broadcast even starts, it’s not exactly a surprise if things inevitably crash down—which they have, much more severely than the quality of the animation would lead you to believe.
On some level, the issue is quite similar: WEP is also working with an extremely short rotation of staff, one that simply can’t handle the amount of work that’s remaining. The main difference is the degree of investment in that model; whereas SK8 appears to have chosen this route because it made sense from a resources standpoint and could be somewhat helpful to manage the process, Shin Wakabashi conceptualized WEP as a creation by his small group of trustworthy creatives, most of which as inexperienced as him. As we’ve been detailing in our production notes, most of the workload is being handled by the same group of youngsters who contribute to nearly every episode, taking turns between heavy key animation duties and directorial/supervision ones.
The upsides of their approach speak for themselves. WEP’s earlier episodes in particular have an extraordinary specificity to their animation as the core team is intimately acquainted with the whole cast, and the insistence with sticking to single directors and supervisors has allowed them to fully realize the vision they had for those characters’ lives too. Even now, with the staff barely surviving on a weekly basis, the animation remains dazzling despite the inevitable loss of precision. People who hear nothing about this might assume this team had the time of their life making it: and while many have loved working with a genius like Wakabayashi, this has become anything but a comfortable ride.
For a while now, those recurring animators have needed entire armies of 2nd key animators to flesh out their rushed output—having to pretty much fully redraw even the work of some of those main animators in some cases. Their deadlines, as well as those of the guests who are now joining in a hurry to salvage the project, are now frankly terrifying; something has gone very wrong when people are told to deliver their animation within few days if not hours. Things aren’t going any better for the management staff either, as they have now to essentially forego sleep and be available at all times, because even the smallest bottleneck would make it impossible to deliver an episode by the next deadline. When people used to working under anime’s poor conditions point out that a project has gotten scary, it’s because it really has.
Was Wakabayashi’s approach fundamentally wrong, then? In some ways, I simply can’t bring myself to fault it. Few things spell out the care for their characters than giving full rein of the upcoming Momoe-focused episode #10 to the same newbie director who already did an excellent job with her introduction on #04, as ideally the person most attuned with her gender issues. All of this, despite the situation being so bad that most projects would have split those directorial duties between a handful of people at least.
And yet, leading a project also means having to worry about your coworkers, which is where I truly wish that others had interceded; understanding producers maybe extending the schedule early on when it really helps, and perhaps more veteran creators talking him into making some minor concessions before everything was on fire. The most depressing conclusion from cases like this is that this industry does have tremendously brilliant individuals like him, but even on the rare occasions where they’re given an opportunity, you end up realizing that the TV anime environment is incompatible with their ambition. Without more studios that actively challenge the way things are done, and more producers willing to understand that they can’t make any money if everything falls apart, no amount of raw talent is going to save TV anime—SK8 and WEP’s struggles sadly prove that.