Ranking of Kings / Ousama Ranking – Production Notes 01-03

Ranking of Kings / Ousama Ranking – Production Notes 01-03

Despite being a directorial debut for Yosuke Hatta, the cohesive clarity of Ousama Ranking makes it a masterclass in adaptation already. And so it’s time to explore the series’ background, as well as the role that the anime’s pointed subjectivity has in turning a childlike tale into a polished epic adventure without compromising its core.

While some of the greatest anime adaptations out there emerge as essentially the definitive way to experience that story, others actually shine best as companion pieces for the original work—and that doesn’t mean they’re any less impressive. We’re talking about fascinating reinterpretations that might reimagine the narrative in a different, perhaps more modern setting, or perhaps switch the point of view to an entirely new character. Far from those massive rewriting efforts, subtler yet equally fundamental in their reframing, we find cases like Ousama Ranking.

Sousuke Tooka’s original manga directly evokes a child’s imagination, as if he was making a statement about his own career. Although Ousama Ranking is his first successfully published manga, that’s a childhood dream of his that he didn’t accomplish until he was in his forties; Tooka had originally abandoned it decades ago, giving up on even reading manga anymore to focus on a white-collar job. A mix of personal circumstances and the changing tides in the industry, namely the internet making it much easier to find an audience through web manga, finally allowed him to accomplish what he’d wanted in his youth.

The anime’s ending sequence and music produced by Geidai graduate Akino Fukuji at WIT’s Ibaraki branch feels like a picture book come to life—and that’s precisely what Tooka intended to draw after quitting his job.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Ousama Ranking reflects all of that. Its art is more carefully constructed than people realize—Tooka had graduated from an art program back in the day after all—but there’s no denying its simplicity and rougher edges. Whether fully consciously or not, he succeeds in weaponizing those supposed drawbacks to reinforce the feeling that you’re prying into the secret notebook of a child with a tremendous imagination. There’s a fascinating feeling of ambiguity to its storytelling that there would simply be no room for with more detailed and polished drawings. And, even on a thematic level, it’s hard to dissociate its gentle morals from the work life experiences the author himself admits made him a more empathetic person. Perhaps telling the story of a powerless tiny prince who is told that he can’t fulfill his goal when you’re a mangaka who was denied his own dream is a little bit on the nose, though!

In contrast to that, studio WIT’s Ousama Ranking is a much more lavish experience. Its designs may still be stylized, but the drawings are always polished and technically sound; surprisingly three-dimensional for their limited linecount, and reactive to the touch whenever necessary. MAYUKO’s score is appropriately whimsical, but its usage in the show swells with clinical precision. Even as art director Yuji Kaneko’s work evokes similar qualities as the source material by stimulating the viewer’s imagination, suggesting even more details about the world than he has actually painted, his backgrounds are still far too precise to capture the same feeling of the source material. And that is fine, because it’s perfectly in line with what this adaptation is: a much more directed experience.

Enabled by the sound simplicity of the core message, which of course remains untouched, the anime adaptation holds the viewer’s hand constantly with some of the clearest storyboarding in television; easy to follow the action, and even easier to follow the intent of the framing. Ousama Ranking was always evocative of fairy tales and fables, so an adaptation like this that emphasizes an epic feeling to its adventure in a more traditional sense is actually quite fitting. It’s common to smooth out the edges of the source material when you’re creating an adaptation with aspirations of becoming a mainstream hit, and while that is undeniably a factor here as well, the result clicks together so well that I find it impossible to fault it for that. In the end, the difference in texture to two dishes with the exact same ingredients ends up making the Ousama Ranking meal a whole lot more interesting.

Following that food metaphor, it’s about time I introduce the chefs for the anime. The story inevitably begins with animation producer Maiko Okada, who pulled the strings masterfully to assemble the team. If you were to present Ousama Ranking to someone deeply knowledgeable about the anime industry but who hadn’t been following it in recent years, they would likely guess that it’s a title produced by Shin-Ei Animation, and there’s a good reason for that. While she has adapted to studio WIT so well that she is being trusted with this 10th anniversary project—please don’t question the fact that they’ve yet to hit that milestone—Okada is actually a Shin-Ei native who made a name for herself in Doraemon. And that’s precisely the crossroad where a lot of the staff, from its directors to the most glamorous guest animator, happened to meet and become comrades. Okada is happy to be able to reunite her friends, and I’m just as happy to see it happen.

Given that I’ve emphasized how much of a directed experience the anime is, and the fact that he’s personally storyboarded two episodes already, I can’t delay the introduction of series director Yosuke Hatta… is what I would say, had we not been closely following his work for 4 years as he emerged as one of the most interesting storyboarders at Madhouse. That experience—especially under star director Shingo Natsume—clearly paid off, because he’s now leading his first project as if he’d been doing this all his life. Even among the series director who go on to have fantastic careers, many become more timid than usual when boarding for their own shows as they’re too overwhelmed by the increase in responsibilities to let their imagination soar in the the same way, but that is not the cast for Hatta and Ousama Ranking, perhaps once again aided by the pure simplicity of the title.

Right off the bat, it’s very clear what Hatta is doing with this adaptation. As a story about a tiny prince with no physical power and a shadow that stands even lower, the storyboards are very subjective in their framing, especially when it relates to perspective. The show will often put you in their shoes, emphasizing or even exaggerating the scale of a world that already dwarfs them. But of course, this is a series transparent in its morals, so a brave gesture by a badly hurt prince is framed in even more aggrandizing fashion. The emotional climax of the second episode, storyboarded by Hatta and animated by Yoshimichi Kameda is a perfect summary of how the message from the source material is perfectly compatible with this more grandiose approach that the anime has taken. Which is to say that you should be happy that Kameda is good friends with Hatta, because he’s likely to contribute some more to the show.

The increase in clarity is a constant throughout all aspects of this anime adaptation. Mind you, this doesn’t mean that it has gotten rid of the intrigue, but rather that it ensures that all reveal hit unequivocally. A big point of the first stages of the series is finding out the true allegiances and character of the cast, with a fitting message not to fall for all superficial appearances. While the third episode wasn’t as elegant in its pacing as the first masterful two, it still went out of its way to rearrange the events a bit, tweaking perspectives temporarily to give a clearer, more compelling picture of Queen Hilling in one fell swoop; overzealous, mistaken in her approach to Bojji, but a loving mother all the same.

As previously mentioned, that articulateness obviously applies to the animation as well. Character designer and co-chief animation director Atsuko Nozaki is a godsend in this regard. While the original artstyle is simple, animation-friendly designs also require to be well defined in their minutiae and properties, and that’s precisely how Nozaki’s elastic, easy to emote animation designs have taken the expressiveness to a whole new level. Although she was already drawing action on the regular before becoming her time with studio WIT, Nozaki’s greatest strength has always been in these simple to parse round forms, cute but in no way at odds with coolness. WIT’s shift in priorities in recent years has allowed her to start playing to her strengths even more, so we can only hope to continue seeing her growth.

And of course, there’s the name that even the most casual fans know and rave about: assistant series director Arifumi Imai, de facto ace animator for Ousama Ranking. His stunning sparring scene in the first episode that draws from Nozaki’s expressiveness caught the attention of the whole world, but what’s perhaps even more encouraging is that his fingerprints appear to be all over another thrilling action sequence in the third episode—one that he wasn’t even credited for. Imai already defined the action vocabulary of an iconic title with Attack on Titan, and whether it was direct corrections, his guidance, or him having already become the example to follow, he might be headed in the same direction with Ousama Ranking. The movement is as easy to follow as everything else in the series, the exaggerated perspective with the pole weapon shots plays off nicely that constant subjectivity in the layouts, and maybe most importantly, it’s damn rad animation!

If you’re feeling somewhat jaded over the state of anime and maybe the world in general, I frankly can’t think of a much better recommendation than Ousama Ranking. Be it the manga with its childlike charm, the anime’s grand take on it, or both of them to fully appreciate the choices that the team behind this adaptation has taken, you’re still going to get a very pure experience—in the best possible meaning of that word. Now if only people started praying for the production buffer to miraculously last over the uninterrupted two cours broadcast, rather than worrying about a bankruptcy that won’t happen.

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Episode 01

Storyboard, Episode Direction: Yosuke Hatta
Assistant Episode Director: Arifumi Imai
Chief Animation Director, Animation Direction: Atsuko Nozaki
Assistant Animation Director: Ayumi Abe

Key Animation: Hitomi Kariya, Ayaka Ofusa, Yuki Togashi, Kumiko Nakata, Ayaka Uwaseki, Teruki Nishijima, Aiko Minowa, Toshiyuki Sato, Naoto Abe, Ruki Matsui

Maki Kawake, Wan Yi, Emi Tamura, Natsuki Shimabukuro, Hirofumi Masuda, Shin Ogasawara, Arifumi Imai, Kenichi Fujisawa
Atsuko Nozaki

Episode 02

Storyboard: Yosuke Hatta
Episode Direction: Makoto Fuchigami
Chief Animation Director, Animation Direction: Maki Kawake
Animation Direction: Hideyuki Arao
Key Animation Supervisor: Youko Kuji

Key Animation: Washio, Ayaka Ofusa, Mai Ogawa, Chikai Okado, Yusuke Adachi, Maho Aoki, Miki Kaneko, Toru Sawamura, Touta Mizokami, Juria Yamamoto, Moe Matsuda, Kana Aoki, Ayumi Abe, Shuhei Yasuda, Hong Rong, Yuki Togashi, Kenichi Fujisawa

Shun Nakajima, Misato Kobayashi, Hiromi Yoshida, Kumiko Nakata, Osamu Murata, Takuya Nishimichi, Kouya Uemichi, Youko Kuji, Yoshimichi Kameda

Episode 03

Storyboard, Episode Direction: Kazuaki Imai
Chief Animation Director: Atsuko Nozaki
Animation Direction: Ayumi Abe, Natsumi Yamashita, Atsuko Nozaki

Key Animation: Risa Sato, Midori Uchiyama, Shin Ogasawara, Nao Takano, Ayaka Ofusa, Tomoyuki Kitamura, Kenta Miya, Yoshihiro Ito, Tomomi Ikeda, Tetsuya Kotou, Ai Miyazawa, Kaori Ikeda, Shoichi Honda, Megumi Nagayama, Takashi Fujiura

Natsumi Yamashita

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10 months ago

Hey Kevin a bit unrelated but what happened to WIT’s Kichijōji studio? seems like a dead studio knowing that Hasegawa is at Kafka now. do you think SpyxFamily will be produced there?

10 months ago

Is this show the studio’s flagship title for now (produced by Aniplex and Fuji and Kadokawa!) while Vivy was the sideproject, or would that be the still yet to come Netflix titles like Vampire in the garden (coming in 202…1?)? From the outside looking in, ever since the Titans got sent elsewhere, Maiko Okada’s titles sure seem to be the more ambitious ones (Osama and Great pretender). Has Osama been granted a buffer capable enough to preserve it or will it live and die by the Aniplex? Also, as far as the Wit/IG Pro situation goes, I kind of wonder… Read more »

10 months ago

It would be amazing if you have the oportunity to translate or get some kind of access to interviews of Naoko Yamada or Science Saru in this new proyect!

10 months ago

Thank you for this article Kevin!

6 months ago

It’s great to read about this anime production from you. As one of the people who admire this work, of course I really want to know more about this anime. And you impart your knowledge of all aspects of this masterpiece. I am very impressed with your writings.