Creators tend to have their range of expression limited when working on big franchises, and that’s precisely why Fate/Grand Order – Divine Realm of the Round Table: Camelot is such an interesting case. This is how a young team amidst a huge mess challenged anime production standards to create something spectacular.
It’s no secret that hugely popular franchises tend to be at odds with creative freedom. The inherent limitations of commercial products, that sanding off the rough edges that may contain the most interesting aspects of the work, producers applying pressure with varying degrees of subtlety, even the dogmatic idea that artists must comply with preset expectations of an audience—all these aspects grow inescapable the larger of a franchise you’re entrusted with. Given its immense growth over the years, this very much applies to the Fate series… though perhaps not as much as people who feel fatigued over its omnipresence would be led to believe.
Even nowadays, Fate anime is allowed to be proudly weird on the sidelines, and most importantly, occasionally bold on the main stage. When talking about the series’ range of expression in anime form, the likes of Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family / Emiya-san Chi no Kyou no Gohan will quickly come to mind: a delightfully cozy cooking-themed spinoff that studio ufotable poured just as much effort into as their main entries in the series. Though not as dissimilar to the standard idea of Fate as Emiya-san, the outrageous Fate/Apocrypha anime reached historic highs by allowing a new generation of creators to go on a rampage with their highly idiosyncratic styles, while also being unashamedly silly at points. Messy for sure, but with undeniable personality.
Most recently—and perhaps most significatively—the highly anticipated theatrical adaptations of Fate/Stay Night’s final route Heavens Feel opened up with a decidedly transformative film, more reminiscent of ufotable’s Kara no Kyoukai work than previous Fate titles. While he’s a huge fan of the source material, director Tomonori Sudo felt the need to strengthen its core and address shortcomings with plenty of original scenes that widened the story’s tonal range some more. That mindfulness of the audience that can come to restrain creators only manifested in their smart decision to add a whole new exciting setpiece to the movie, which ended up being arguably the most fun one in the trilogy; and I’m not saying this just because it spawned the running Lancer meme. Although the trilogy lost steam by the end, it proved that you can have a Fate adaptation with a personality of its own even on the biggest of screens.
In contrast to those neat iterations on the concept of Fate, the anime adaptations of Fate/Grand Order have made the safest, frankly most boring choice at every turn… save for the consistently stunning commercials by the Shun Enokido and Takahito Sakazume duo, which exist closer to Apocrypha’s anime than to any FGO adaptation. Being the title that took the franchise’s worldwide popularity to a whole new level, genuinely making it one of the most lucrative series out there, it’s understandable that the people in charge would like to keep things safe. But understanding their reasoning does not mean agreeing with it, and I wouldn’t shy away from saying that I’ve found the FGO anime experience thus far to be pretty miserable. The less is said about studio Lay-duce’s takes on each prologue—First Order and Moonlight/Lostroom—the better; both flavorless even in the mediocrity of their production, a plain embarrassment for such a big franchise. And, amusing as they may be, the quirky comedic spinoffs that sometimes drop during the Fate New Year’s Eve Special are too limited in scope to feel like the series as a whole is trying anything interesting.
After such a rocky start, the high-profile adaptation of Absolute Demonic Front: Babylonia felt like a chance to prove that FGO can justify its existence in anime form. The team gathered at studio CloverWorks included more stars than you can count, and the sheer feeling of scale in the promotional videos promised a thrilling ride. Sure, the decision to skip over multiple chapters to start with a fan favorite story wouldn’t make it perfectly approachable for newcomers, but when your existing fanbase is already massive that’s not as much of a worry, and a flashy enough adaptation can even get those newcomers to go check out the admittedly lesser material they leapt over. That was the angle that made the show so successful, and at the same time, so deeply uninteresting.
Even as someone without any strong feelings towards FGO, blaming the source material for Babylonia’s dreadfully insipid storytelling feels like misplaced blame—it’s not what they’re working with, but the idea of what they’re working with that crushed the potential of such an all-stars creative lineup. Babylonia felt like it always had to comply with a suit’s idea of what Fate is, to the point of forgetting what the story actually is. Tonally, the series only ever operated on two modes: a grand epic template applied to battles regardless of whether that was a good fit or not, complete with deafening sound direction, as well as isolated moments of wacky comedy with no organic integration at all. In between them, a lull of nothingness that made the strict priorities enforced into the show way too clear.
No aspect made that brand pressure clearer than the character art. Having an exceptional animation designer and Chief Animation Director (総作画監督, Sou Sakuga Kantoku): Often an overall credit that tends to be in the hands of the character designer, though as of late messy projects with multiple Chief ADs have increased in number; moreso than the regular animation directors, their job is to ensure the characters look like they're supposed to. Consistency is their goal, which they will enforce as much as they want (and can). in Tomoaki Takase to polish up every drawing should have been a tremendous boost to the expressivity, and yet the animation was very often inert, despite many talented key animators attempting to contribute nuanced, attractive acting to the show. The drawings are as good as you can technically be without actually conveying much of anything. How did everything go wrong, then?
It’d be easy to say that filtering all the diverse designs through Fate’s most recognizable artist Takashi Takeuchi was at the root of it, but that again feels like misplacing the blame. Way before Takeuchi’s style was polished in any way, dating back to the indie days of Type-Moon, his work was already characterized by how expressive it felt; huge gaping mouths and dynamic poses that may have been clunky, but conveyed something very clearly. And yet, the endlessly increasing popularity of his work swallowed him, becoming a victim of his own brand; not that he seems to mind it, since it’s the perfect excuse to continue drawing saberface. Apply that to Babylonia, though, and you have a show that’s constantly preoccupied with complying to a brand, visually and tonally, that doesn’t even represent what was attractive about those works in the first place. Only those who outright rebelled against that norm, not hiding how they felt about the project in the process, brought life to an often spectacular but completely shallow husk of a project.
After such a disheartening adaptation, was there much of a reason to get excited for FGO Camelot, the next major adaptation in the series? Aniplex offloading it to external studios, as opposed to one they directly own like CloverWorks, might have signaled that they weren’t all that invested in that chapter, but it also meant that they couldn’t police the adaptation quite as closely—which was kind of an encouraging approach after Babylonia. If there was one truly exciting aspect, though, that was the staff. While Babylonia had arguably more sheer star power, Camelot’s core staff had something else on top of that talent: eccentricity and boldness, exactly what FGO anime felt like it had needed all along.
Kou Yoshinari’s contributions, expected by everyone since he belongs to the same mysterious animation circle as its director, are the most stylistically divergent scenes in the first Camelot movie—embodying the bolder approach of this adaptation.
The first Camelot film was to be produced at Signal MD, led by a director whose resume I can only sum up as interesting. Kei Suezawa may not be a famous name, but the truth is that he’s been a neat figure in the industry since before he even joined it. His very first professional work while still a student was on a legendary project like Dennou Coil, where he contributed digital effects, compositing, and key animation—immediately showcasing his holistic, at the time very much unconventional approach to digital animation that of course resonated with director Mitsuo Iso. After training at studio Xebec, he made a name for himself as a freelance animation ace on various A-1 Pictures projects thanks to his attractive approach to character acting; loose forms that tend towards rounded geometrical shapes, but very articulate on the delivery, exaggerating minute movements in a way only animation can do.
Animators with that specific of a vision tend to jump to directorial gigs as soon as they can, but the opportunity took a while to present for Suezawa. Once it did, though, his ascent was meteoric. After directing a single episode of TV anime, he was given full Series Director: (監督, kantoku): The person in charge of the entire production, both as a creative decision-maker and final supervisor. They outrank the rest of the staff and ultimately have the last word. Series with different levels of directors do exist however – Chief Director, Assistant Director, Series Episode Director, all sorts of non-standard roles. The hierarchy in those instances is a case by case scenario. level responsibility within FLCL Progressive’s episodic production, right before moving on to directing this movie. While FLCL Progressive hardly lived up to the expectations of the title, Suezawa’s episode in particular was a memorable feat in animation, with a style not seen before nor ever since. Its fully digital production was geared towards addressing something that irked Suezawa: preserving the unique texture of each animator’s work, which is inevitably lost in the standard animation production process due to the scanning and tracing processes. The rough linework preserved the character of the animation throughout the episode in a way that commercial works are never allowed to, and his direction was single-mindedly focused on exploiting that. Even if you have no interest in the series, people who appreciate idiosyncratic animation owe it to themselves to check out that episode.
How did such an interesting director fare with FGO Camelot, then? Calling the first movie a mixed bag would be an understatement. On a fundamental level, its storytelling suffered from issues inherent to the same approach they’d taken before; condensing a story that was originally gated by constant encounters that make no sense outside the original format leads to endless exposition, and it’s hard to make something that feels not only narratively but also emotionally self-contained when you’re adapting the sixth arc of a game… which is arguably a sequel to the first route in a different visual novel. On the flipside, the core buried under all that complication is quite strong, and at its best, Suezawa’s delivery was much more nuanced than the loud monotone of FGO Babylonia. Its climax embodies that: tragic, but also beautiful and solemn, making for a more memorable scene than the bombastic sacrifices of its predecessor.
Unfortunately, any positive feelings are easily washed away by the fact that its production was an unmitigated disaster. While its storyboards can be quite evocative, the character art is all over the place despite the chief supervision of a legend like Kazuchika Kise, and even Suezawa’s neat experimentation turned out to be unflattering this time around; as if to try the exact opposite approach than in his deliberately rough FLCL episode, he opted to go with very clinical thick linework for pretty much every close-up in the film, which makes for an awkward contrast with the textured backgrounds. But frankly, no individual artist should be blamed for the movie’s failings. We’re talking about the kind of production where the studio would refuse to pay certain animation directors with the argument that their work wasn’t up to standards, disregarding that there was no way to deliver more polished work with their abysmal schedule. Incidentally, the first animator to call them out and sue the studio about it ended up being arrested for driving without a license, something that few people would be privy to—like the company he worked at, for example. Just some food for thought!
Is FGO anime just fundamentally doomed, then? In a way, the answer appears to be yes, but that only fueled the passion of the staff in charge of the second movie, this time around at Production IG. Right at the start of FGO’s anime adventures, Lay-duce’s attempts had never stood a chance. While CloverWorks’ fancy Babylonia adaptation delivered something that diehard fans who just want to relive highlights would appreciate, its creators thoroughly felt the pressure of your average Marvel movie. And right before them, Suezawa’s crew at Signal.MD timidly tried to do something different, but they had been dealt a fundamentally unfair hand and had to deal with a very unfriendly studio. All of this gave director Kazuto Arai a clear sign: screw all conventions and regular practices, just do as you please.
Mind you, even if the climate hadn’t been so adverse, Arai would have already trended in this direction anyway. The 30yo director doesn’t have much experience at all in the field, with the aforementioned FLCL Progressive having been his one real shot at it beforehand. After a brief training stint at studio Trigger, he became the type of freelance effects animator who pops up on notable productions all over the industry—a good way to pile up the contacts he’d need for an ode to animation idiosyncrasy like FGO Camelot 2.
Arai’s approach to making this movie, then, was the most pure creative drive in any animated FGO product: he just wanted to see what his friends could create with no restraints. For that, he completely disregarded anime production standards and assigned every appearance of individual characters to specific animators, especially in the second half of the movie; something he called a Disney-like approach when it comes to the specificity of those roles, and also a rushed mimicry of Hayao Miyazaki’s Heidi role or Satoshi Kon’s work on Patlabor 2 given the near solo layout effort for certain chunks. But those animators wouldn’t simply be drawing a lot: they were elevated to chief director level, in charge of design and color work, storyboarding, compositing, and even all the audio choices in their respective segments. His greatest challenge as a project leader was fighting adversity to protect that individual creative freedom, even in cases where the approach was clearly becoming cumbersome on a scheduling level. Since all traditional approaches had failed and the project was already on fire, though, why not stick to his guns?
The end of King Arthur’s legend as depicted by Danish studio Sun Creature in the second film, another beautiful example of the greater stylistic range of this adaptation.
Since the very start, this second movie shows its stronger identity by embracing the idiosyncrasies—the technical term for robust chins—of Nakaya Onsen’s designs for certain knights of the round table, modulating the character art in a much more memorable and characterful way. Although few and far between, its moments of levity are integrated in a more organic way, so their impact is all that much greater. It also doesn’t take long for it to showcase the potential of Arai’s approach to the action in this movie; which is to say, the individual approach of the animators he cherrypicked for the job. While his role wasn’t as involved as the artists who fully take over the movie’s second half, Production IG’s Ryota Furukawa storyboarded and fully key animated the fight against Lancelot: 4 minutes of sharp animation, notoriously grand framing, and decently involved choreography that culminate in the angelic smile of a child that just beat the crap out of their powerful but misguided parent.
But it’s only once the war that lasts over an hour begins, especially once the individual confrontations are locked, that Arai’s madness is in full display. Given the people involved and the flashy action spectacle, FGO Camelot 2 has been compared to the likes of Mob Psycho S2 #05 and Fate/Apocrypha #22. While that’s on the right track, I think it’s more accurate to say that it’s 4 episodes like that happening concurrently and sometimes sort of at odds with each other, which only makes the film more fascinating. For starters, we have Takumi Sunakohara handling everything related to Tristan and his fight against the assassin class servants. They all happen to be particularly tricky foes to face, hence why these setpieces are by far the most intricate choreography-wise, often involving the environment to a point where even Arai himself found it hard to parse everything. Having animated about one hundred cuts himself, it’s a given that the drawings would feel granular in the way that characterizes an effects specialist like him, but the delicate and highly atmospheric compositing in his sequences is an unexpected treat found nowhere else in these movies. His storyboards are arguably the most evocative as well—rather impressive for someone with no experience whatsoever in the role.
In contrast to Sunakohara’s delicate approach to momentousness, Itsuki Tsuchigami aimed to emphasize the sheer feeling of scale while depicting the battles against Gawain. The second he takes over, space itself seems to warp in an aggrandizing manner, making his appearances signal that this is indeed as big of a battle as it gets. Much like his peers, Tsuchigami also contributed over 100 cuts to his segments of the film, adding to some of the scenes with the greatest wow factor in the entire festival of action. His work is the most traditionally epic, and perhaps because of that, he made unique artistic choices like dying the linework to emulate the touch of cel animation. While perfectly coherent on an internal level, Arai acknowledged that decisions like this destroy any semblance of overall consistency, and simply found that a fair price to pay for his ultimate goal of enabling the individual artists he trusted to do as they pleased.
One of the harshest stylistic turns comes in the switch from Mordred’s peaceful last moments with fairly standard drawings to the most expressionistic sequences in the whole movie—Hisashi Mori’s work, sandwiched between those chunks that were fully controlled by individuals, and exerting as much freedom of his own.
The last participant with complete freedom was none other than Hakuyu Go, the mastermind behind the aforementioned Mob Psycho S2 #05 and Fate/Apocrypha #22; that’s a cache that speaks for itself, even though his resume isn’t actually all that much more extensive than that. As the creative voice who usually leads this crew, it’s not surprising that his work centered around Agravain exhibits some of the most attractive aspects of everyone else’s style. You’ve got the scale of Tsuchigami and granularity of Sunakohara, allowing animators like Bahi JD to unleash all they’ve got on his setpieces; and of course, allowing himself to do the same, because his storyboards were so grandiose that they deemed them impossible to be processed by anyone else in spots. What stands out the most, though, are the intangibles—granted by his slight bit more of experience, but also by sensibilities that have always appeared to be innate. The beginning of his segment as animated by Weiling Zhang has been shared over and over, and for good reason at that, but I implore everyone to experience it with audio as well since the complete change in sound direction alone proves how much of a difference-maker Go is.
And if you still don’t believe he’s that big of a deal, just go ask Arai himself, who signed off his commentary on the production by simply stating Hakuyu Go is God. After giving his pals complete freedom for chunks of the movie, Arai had saved the climax for himself… which turned out to be a daunting task when he realized what he had to live up to. The solution was simple, as long as you consider extending an already impossible workload even further a simple task. On top of handling Agravain’s entire battle as if that was a self-contained short film, personally animating hundreds of shots and pitching in corrections to the animation as well, Go ended up drawing the rough Layouts (レイアウト): The drawings where animation is actually born; they expand the usually simple visual ideas from the storyboard into the actual skeleton of animation, detailing both the work of the key animator and the background artists. for 130+ cuts in the climax. He added a tremendous amount of visual flair to the storyboards that Arai had struggled so much with, which he still wasn’t fully satisfied with. For an easy-to-understand example of what that role entailed, just take a look at this step-by-step clip that summarizes how transformative his presence was in what ultimately amounted to an appropriately memorable finale. The team’s fight against all the surrounding circumstances, and often against themselves, ended on a positively high note.
It goes without saying that the result isn’t perfect, be it for the inherent issues to the approach taken to adapting FGO‘s overarching story, or because this unorthodox approach bit them in the butt more than once. It’s also a given that we shouldn’t celebrate the chaotic schedule that enabled this madness, as fascinating as the results were in the end. This is not the type of project that pushes you to brush aside the flaws, but rather one where factoring them in only makes the team’s achievements appear greater. As an action movie, FGO Camelot‘s second film in particular is very good—and, as part of its series, it’s an insane feat that I doubt will be matched.
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