Maidragon is back. KyoAni is back—in more ways than one, having given free rein to the next generations of creators trained under the studio’s unstoppable mentorship system. All these efforts shared a rallying cry that the studio altogether has adopted after their tragedy: inspiration for the future.
After its vague announcement months prior, the sequel to Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid was going to be unveiled at Kyoto Animation’s biyearly studio event, originally slated for November 2019; a bit of a surprise move given what they had on their plate and the company’s preference for their own properties, but considering how fond they’d become of Maidragon‘s cast and their ability to lead the production committee anyway, it still fit well enough within their plans. That is, until tragedy struck. The arson attack on KyoAni’s Studio 1 took many irreplaceable lives and scarred even more, including people like Series Director: (監督, kantoku): The person in charge of ... Yasuhiro Takemoto and Art Director (美術監督, bijutsu kantoku): The person in ... Mikiko Watanabe. Despite being perfectly justified in scrapping the project if they had wanted, the staff rallied to keep it going, so that no work by their lost comrades was wasted.
The journey ever since then hasn’t been easy. The studio’s recovery process happened to overlap with a worldwide pandemic that has impacted essentially every industry like nothing before it, anime being no exception… and KyoAni even less so, as their fully in-house approach made things more cumbersome than they were for studios that rely on freelancers for the most part. Although it was never made public, Maidragon S was delayed from its original 2020 release plan, which led to a much ampler production schedule but also a big gap to fill—hence the show’s rebroadcast on TV and the existence of Minidora, a short web series bridging the gap between seasons. The animation production of Maidragon S began in earnest back in early Spring 2020, which is a bit of an eternity ago by KyoAni’s capabilities, and its pre-production was already nearly wrapped up in 2019. The scenario was fully written, the design process was underway, and Takemoto’s fondness of storyboarding by his own hand meant that he’d already drawn a bunch of them—including work we just saw in the first episode.
Those circumstances and the team’s goals are readily apparent when watching this episode, as well as everything that surrounds it. The desire to follow the path trodden by their lost comrades isn’t something they save for nice-sounding interviews, but rather their approach to all the studio’s ongoing works. Maidragon S feels immediately familiar in its atmosphere, accentuating the source material’s more tender moments without shying away from hardcore dragon slapstick as its predecessor did, and following a similar note with the visuals as well; perhaps without quite the same incredible range the first season had, but still with a great balance of careful acting and cartoony hijinks that have only gotten better since then. Even the background art continues to be cozy and gorgeous on the exact same note, with new Art Director (美術監督, bijutsu kantoku): The person in ... Shouko Ochiai iterating on some of Watanabe’s old boards while also painting plenty of her own. Someone with no context of the studio’s situation wouldn’t even question the adjustment between seasons, and those who know about it are bound to admire how smooth of a process it has been. Takemoto being posthumously credited as Series Director: (監督, kantoku): The person in charge of ... isn’t just a nice gesture: this is the show he wanted to make.
Now, this isn’t to say that Tatsuya Ishihara isn’t leaving his imprint as the show’s new director; even when trying to stay true to a friend’s vision, a director with a strong personality will inevitably tweak things their own way in the process of deciding what’s best. More specifically, this means that the show’s excellent opening begins with a frantic Nichijou sequence and eventually leads to Chuu2koi‘s paneling. Even his favorite title cards made an appearance! Specific quirks aside, what many people might have realized is that Maidragon S #01 is snappier and faster paced, especially when it comes to its gags. That’s partly due to Ishihara’s touch so it might be noticeable in the long run as well, but a big reason why it was so apparent in the first episode was a decision he took after considering that other point we brought up: the show has been in the making for a long time, which also means it has been off the air for quite a while. Minidora was a good reminder for the viewers who tuned in for it, but Ishihara still wanted to slot in a quick reminder of the show’s dynamics before kicking in the sequel for real, hence why he rearranged things for this episode to start with a fast-paced gag before Ilulu makes her appearance.
The consequences of this long break of sorts for the studio don’t end there. We often emphasize just how important the education aspect is to their unique culture, as embodied by the fact that the KyoAni School has been running for longer than they’ve been making their own anime. The studio is always—and now more than ever—rearing the next generations of anime creators, a process that often starts with their own courses but that wouldn’t be as effective if it stopped there. Ishihara recently noted that for new talent to develop, you need to give those up-and-coming creators an opportunity, the feeling that they’re putting something out there for people to enjoy. And when your studio is in a bit of an extended break from TV because every possible disaster has happened, that becomes harder to do. Giving the young new staff increasingly more important roles during the production of Maidragon S was a given, but since that’s a slow process that this first episode only gradually started, it might not have been enough.
The return of KyoAni also meant the return of Ishidate’s dancing animation, which is very much appreciated.
The solution? Putting all existing supplementary projects in their inexperienced hands, and then coming up with some more for them to show off their developing skills. Although Minidora was already in the plans in 2019, it was reconverted into a playground for the young animation staff with this situation in mind, as confirmed by Ishihara himself. All the official illustrations for magazines thus far have also been drawn by youngsters, some of whom don’t even have Key Animation (原画, genga): These artists draw the pivota... credits yet; a confirmation of their promotion, and also of the trust that has been placed in them. As nice as that is, we’re again talking of things that many viewers will never see, so this return for the studio needed something bigger to showcase its young talent. And that meant it was time to revive a tradition of the studio: the dazzling commercials.
Although certain recent events might have tainted the idea, there’s nothing wrong about studios building up a brand and promoting it. If anything, it’s the smart thing to do when animation budgets are often so low. Be it celebrations of one’s unique style ala Trigger that help them continue standing out, or a genuine diversification of their sources of income like ufotable has managed with their many venues, this puts studios in a safer position in this otherwise rocky industry. Serves to say, KyoAni has understood that for a long time. Their pivot to focusing on their own IPs was always accompanied by luxurious animated commercials, showcasing the animation they were known for at its very best. Many KA Esuma titles received fancy CMs before their anime adaptation, while other short films promoted the studio, their store, and even their surroundings—those who’ve visited Uji know that the studio’s art is often present in places like train stations around the area. Details like this can go a long way to solidify your studio’s brand.
Let's have a thread about the KyoAni Shop advertisements on the local Keihan stations.
First, we have to go back to June 2011 where KyoAni included this advertisement during broadcasts of Nichijou (they were one of the sponsors of the timeslot): https://t.co/eJ6KRnInob
— ultimatemegax|BLM🏳️🌈 (@ultimatemegax) May 17, 2019
Quite a few years had passed since KyoAni’s latest commercials: the near-impossible feats of animation that were the Violet Evergarden novel CMs, dating from 2016 and 2017 respectively. The first new commercial that has arrived by Maidragon‘s side is not on the same level of technical excellence, but again, its goal was very specific: to allow the younger staff to let loose. Their Meiji short film, codenamed Vision, is themed around 20th Century Electric Catalog, a light novel from the studio’s own imprint that they announced would receive an anime adaptation a year before the arson. The spirit of this bright piece is encapsulated by its tagline, the same one they’ve been using for the studio’s upcoming physical event: inspiration the future. And the way to do that, of course, is to entrust things to the next generations.
While it was storyboarded and directed by Ishihara himself, the texture of the short film itself is very telling about the fact that novice staff made it, both in their disregard for established practices and the rougher edges. Most notably, Aya Hikita acted as the character designer and animated director for this CM. If that name doesn’t ring any bells, it’s because you can count her works as a key animator with the fingers of one hand—most of which being instances where she was only doing clean-up. Given her complete lack of experience, it’s easy to forgive the minor imperfections in certain shots and slightly robotic movements that you wouldn’t expect from a standard KyoAni production, and instead appreciate the fresh feeling it’s got. Making mistakes is an important part of one’s training process after all, and if this is the level of quality they’re starting at, the future is promising.
And it wasn’t limited to Hikita, the animation team she led was youthful to say the least. With the exception of Rie Sezaki, who’s been at KyoAni for over 15 years and acted as an animation director a few times, the list of animators contains people who’ve got moderate to extremely low experience (Aoi Matsumoto, Momoka Yoshizaki, Mei Issei, Yusuke Miyahara, Kakeru Isokawa)… or simply no Key Animation (原画, genga): These artists draw the pivota... experience whatsoever (Kengo Narimatsu, as well as ex-P.A. Works Nami Kumasaki, who jumped ship to Kyoto after Maquia). Although not quite as extreme as this animation lineup, even the background art was in the hands of someone with no prior experience leading their department’s efforts like Sayaka Ichiyama. The studio’s intention of giving their up-and-coming staff their own canvas is palpable.
If that first commercial was proof of the future potential of KyoAni’s youth, the surprise they saved for the end was an astonishing showcase of their skill right now. Just like it says in the can, this second short film is a celebration of the power of the imagination, a cute short story with vignettes that will be relatable to everyone who wasn’t born as a fully formed adult being. Its animation lineup is the exact same as the previous one’s—further proof that these two were made in conjunction so that the young staff could let loose—with the exception of designer and animation director Tamami Tokuyama, whose art caught my eye the second she joined the studio. Despite being a contemporary of Hikita’s, Tokuyama adapted to the role much more immediately: her short film is thoroughly polished, and every character movement feels like it’s telling you something about them. It’s got the flair and tactility people associate with KyoAni, as you’d like to have in a commercial for the studio itself, but also feels like a whole new take on them—exactly what you’d want from a project like this.
What’s even more interesting is that, rather than have a veteran like Ishihara conceptualize it, this CM was truly the product of KyoAni’s new generations. Its newbie director and storyboarder is Haruki Sakamoto, a name none of you could have associated with KyoAni before. Why is that? Because he joined the studio right before the tragedy, and due to them laying low for a while, he hadn’t even had the chance to pop his head up until now; again, a great example of why these new generations needed their own projects to fiddle with. If you investigate further, though, you might find out that he’s a multi-talented individual who’s done everything from management to painting, and that he happens to be a friend of rising Trigger star Ichigo Kanno; here you can see the both of them collaborate as students, with Kanno acting as the designer, co-storyboarder, and animator, while Sakamoto handled the management, backgrounds, color design and painting, compositing, editing, and probably cooking while he was at it.
While it’s quite rare for creators with outside experience to even join KyoAni, it’s not unprecedented to see one of them pop up and immediately click with the group to earn themselves a directorial spot; such was the case of Ai Yukimura and her brief stunt with the studio, before she moved to the states and later became freelance. Given Sakamoto’s experience in nearly every field that encompasses animation despite his limited experience, it’s not a big surprise that he earned himself this opportunity too. While the concept is simple and the scope of the project is limited, I find it unarguable that Sakamoto succeeded at portraying that childlike imagination that we’re born with and should make an effort to retain, exemplifying why animation is tailor-made to capture that feeling. And again, who better than your studio’s up-and-coming talent to create something like this? When the time comes, we’ll have to talk about the fact that a few renowned KyoAni creators stepped down after the Violet Evergarden film because they needed a fresh start away from the place where the lives of many friends were taken, but all these up-and-coming artists are already assuaging worries about the studio’s future.
We could have focused more specifically on this episode of Maidragon S, from the small instances that exemplify the staff’s intent of making every movement amusing in some way as they’ve been talking about on their blog for months, or even the changing inter-studio dynamics that are already manifesting. And don’t worry: we will talk about all of that at some point in the show’s coverage, but a more thematically cohesive approach felt right for the studio’s return, given how focused their efforts to raise new creators have been. In a way, nothing new for KyoAni, but that’s exactly what makes this all so touching. Welcome back.
Storyboard (絵コンテ, ekonte): The blueprints of animati... More: Yasuhiro Takemoto, Tatsuya Ishihara
Episode Direction (演出, enshutsu): A creative but also c...: Tatsuya Ishihara
Chief Animation Director (総作画監督, Sou Sakuga Kantok...: Nobuaki Maruki
Animation Direction (作画監督, sakuga kantoku): The arti...: Kohei Okamura
Key Animation (原画, genga): These artists draw the pivota...: Tatsuya Sato, Kyohei Ando, Ryo Miyaki, Yurika Ono, Tamami Tokuyama, Aya Hikita, Kohei Okamura
Storyboard (絵コンテ, ekonte): The blueprints of animati... More, Direction: Tatsuya Ishihara
Animation Direction (作画監督, sakuga kantoku): The arti...: Nobuaki Maruki, Miku Kadowaki
Key Animation (原画, genga): These artists draw the pivota...: Yoshinori Urata, Taichi Ishidate, Mariko Takahashi
Storyboard (絵コンテ, ekonte): The blueprints of animati... More, Direction: Shinpei Sawa
Animation Direction (作画監督, sakuga kantoku): The arti...: Nobuaki Maruki, Miku Kadowaki
Key Animation (原画, genga): These artists draw the pivota...: Sae Sawada, Chiharu Kuroda, Shinpei Sawa
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