The Recipe For An Impossible Animation Team – Princess Connect Re:Dive Season 2 Production Notes

The Recipe For An Impossible Animation Team – Princess Connect Re:Dive Season 2 Production Notes

Princess Connect Re:Dive Season 2 #04 is without a doubt one of the most jaw-dropping action spectacles in recent TV anime, while remaining every bit as charming as the show has been. But who’s responsible for it all, and what does it take for a production to punch so far above its weight?

While I don’t think it’s the right way to look at it, I can totally see why many people believe that the Princess Connect! Re-Dive anime has no business being as good as it is. In an era of countless uninspired adaptations, and especially with the added context of most soshage/mobage anime being flavorless ads, Takaomi Kanasaki’s transformative take on PriConne is indeed swimming against the ride. His thorough vision, a well-managed and sturdy production, and the ability to pack a worldview into a fundamentally simple story are unusual, but that’s more due to its incompetent peers than on this team accidentally stumbling into a success that they didn’t fully earn.

As a matter of fact, PriConne is regularly well animated and even more consistently hilarious, and most importantly, it has a distinct identity—one is that inseparable from the aforementioned Kanasaki. Although he has been a well-regarded comedy director for years, even more so once KonoSuba turned out to be an international hit, no project had given him free rein in the way Priconne has. Mind you, he has always been a very involved project leader with an impressive storyboarding record on his own titles, but he truly took things to the next level with this adaptation; to the point that, 1.5 seasons in, almost every single episode has been storyboarded by him. Despite not having all that much experience as a writer, Kanasaki has also penned all episodes but one interlude, and he’s even taking on sound direction duties for the first time. Every single aspect is directly in the hands of a director with violently effective comedic timing, an amusing storyteller who can balance narrative and commercial needs in a pretty satisfactory way.

The show’s introduction already showcased Kanasaki’s fondness of playing with expectations, by building up a traditionally solemn videogame introduction before cutting to an amnesiac baby of a protagonist getting mauled on by silly looking wolves. This was the first of many scenes to either subvert your expectations or keep you salivating for an obvious punchline, all executed with clinically precise timing.

As someone with an extensive animation career himself, Kanasaki isn’t the type of director to feel content with appealing ideas—if anything, it’s the execution phase where he has traditionally thrived. Fans were quick to notice an animation philosophy very reminiscent of his previous KonoSuba work; perhaps not quite as wild due to the absence of its designer and animation centerpiece Koichi Kikutawhose quirks Kanasaki has borrowed—but still delightfully loose and expressive. Anime as a whole has been deprecating cartoony animation, and it’s particularly rare to see this willingness to break loose from the design sheets on a title originally born from a business model all about selling fancy character art. It’s worth noting that it’s not just that animators are encouraged to distort characters as they see fit, but also that a great deal of consideration went into distilling the designs to begin with. The team has repeatedly referred to details like Pecorine’s crown reducing its spikes from 5 to 3, in a way that the design still suggests its original intricacy but is much more feasible for the animators to draw while moving in inherently amusing ways, as that is key to Kanasaki’s vision.

These efforts resulted in an immensely enjoyable first season that was welcoming to newcomers to the property, while also offering a neat alternate take to existing fans; even the most ice-cold purist hear would melt with the warmth of a show where a cat gets cosmically owned on a weekly basis, and yet it comes across as a loving adventure of a found family rather than mean-spirited bullying. The show may not be particularly poignant nor a revolution in the craft, but it understands itself perfectly, and so it remains enjoyable all the way through. It’s that type of anime that you can recommend to right about everyone looking for a fun series.

All of this applies to the currently airing second season as well… or at least it did until the fourth episode. Going back to that initial idea, PriConne may actually have business being as enjoyable as it tends to be, but it most definitely isn’t entitled to an all-timer spectacle like the one it just dropped. In fact, it shouldn’t even be possible for an episode like this to happen within the scope of its production. And that begs the question: how? What was it that allowed PriConne to temporarily clear the gap between a charming seasonal comedy and a thrilling ride featuring many of the greatest people in the business?

The animated cutscenes for the 20th in-game event, directed by our main protagonist today and produced at studio Makaria with a very different cast, serves as a very early look at what was to come.

Most people in the know would immediately answer that by pointing to its storyboarder and director Takahito Sakazume, and they’d be right to do so. Depending on your criteria, Sakazume may be a complete newbie director or a seasoned action specialist who’s been at the forefront of anime’s most dynamic setpieces in the last few years. This is to say that this is indeed the first full-length episode of anime he has ever storyboarded and directed, but that he’d already been an action ace calling the shots on many high-profile productions. Sakazume has been a major asset in spectacular digital animation-heavy titles since pretty much the very start of his professional career, especially under his animation mentor—but junior back in their student days—Tatsuya Yoshihara. In no time, Sakazume took over large properties like Fate, teaming up with his good friend Shun Enokido to become the action director for Fate/Apocrypha and form the dynamic duo behind Fate/Grand Order’s exciting commercials. Had it not been for his packed schedule, he’d likely been entrusted with an entire episode long ago. And everyone knew that when that happened, it’d be a sight to behold.

There is a clear pattern to major debut episodes for already established young prospects, in which they find ways to apply their well-known traits to a larger stage, but also manage to surprise the audience with new aspects to their work that’d never had an opportunity to manifest themselves before; the effective Yamada-isms in Eri Irei’s episode of NijiGaku stand out as a recent example of one such sweet surprise. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that there’s also a more specific pattern at play. Back when Fate/Apocrypha #22 aired, we referred to it as a paradigm shift, a generational change when it came to leading TV anime’s grandest spectacles. Veterans were, and still are, invited to these festival-like episodes, but the protagonists became much younger with the snap of Hakuyu Go‘s fingers. Ever since then, the most impressive episodes every year have been youthful bursts like SSSS.Gridman #09 and its successor SSSS.Dynazenon #10, Hugtto! Precure #16 and more recently Tropical Rouge Precure #29, the more delicate Yama no Susume S3 #10, and of course Mob Psycho 100 II #05. The leading voices in them all had little to absolutely no experience, but the trend to bet on them has proven effective—in no small part because of the exceptional team of animation guests they all gather, which heavily overlaps between them all.

With that context in mind, the otherwise bizarrely momentous episode begins to make more sense. The very first scene comes by the hand of the aforementioned Enokido, Sakazume’s animation circle partner and undoubtedly his greatest ally in recent years; the gravitas and scale of his introduction are all that his friend could have asked for to set the tone. The exclamation point to that opening statement, proving that this episode means business both on screen and with its significance behind the scenes, immediately comes with living legend Kou Yoshinari blowing it all up. While you could take for granted the appearance of Sakazume’s talented close friends, summoning an extraterrestrial force of animation like Aninari right off the bat speaks of how big of an industry event this was. A strong start, and it only gets better after that.

In an episode featuring both deliberate and incidental nods to iconic cuts, the one that took me by surprise the most was Ren Onodera emulating the buildup and spooky shot that Shingo Yamashita had used for the fables within Shinsekai Yori.

Another quickly apparent quality of this episode is that it is exactly as funny as ever, which is something you can’t take for granted either. These young animator storms as of late are so transformative that they tend to alter the show’s very essence; a worthy tradeoff since their vision is often stunning, but something I’m glad that Kanasaki’s strong scriptwriting prevented from happening in this case. PriConne S2 #04 is a grandiose showcase of action in spots, and it’s forced to give more focus to the serious plot that has always been brewing in the background, but even in the midst of its coolest setpieces it finds way to casually bring a smile out of you… unless you happen to be the unfortunate cat, whose umpteenth death is ignored even by the camera.

The animation supports that as well, remaining bouncy and fun throughout thanks to animators like Ayaka Minoshima, who handled the largest workload with an economical yet immensely attractive style. It’s easy for episodes like this to prioritize the action to the detriment of simple character interactions, but that simply wouldn’t be the PriConne way, hence why this episode offers character animation goodness in right about any flavor. On top of that usual loose and sometimes snappy comedic animation, you’ve got stunning layout work like Soty’s, and cuts with more illustrative quality to them by… well, literal illustrators. It’s worth noting that this episode marks the first appearance in the show by the aforementioned Kikuta, who feels right at home in a series that Kanasaki strongly modeled after his work on KonoSuba. I frankly can’t imagine better proof that the show’s spirit remained intact than the fact that one of its greatest influences was able to casually sneak in without most people even noticing.

But of course, Sakazume is an action specialist, so he’ll happily escalate any fight when given the opportunity. While he’s been handling many high-profile fighting scenes, the truth is that he hasn’t had the chance to put together a battlefield like the one in this episode’s climax. The way his FGO commercials have to pack tons of highlights across a massive cast in just a few seconds is an art unto itself, and the franchise in general tends to favor 1v1 confrontations. As a hired animation hand elsewhere, there’s only so much that is up to him. Priconne S2 #04 was a rare opportunity to board a continuous setpiece involving all sorts of characters, giving him enough freedom to figure out which angle to approach it from. The answer he found was simple and effective: BIG.

The final setpiece begins by the hand of Definitely Not Arifumi Imai, using his titanic experience with an extreme low angle shot and generous foreshortening to emphasize the imposing presence of a massive foe. What follows is several minutes that constantly underline that jaw-dropping scale, brought to life by a selection of animators so loaded with star power that it looks like the dream of an animation nerd with an overly active imagination; Hironori Tanaka, Itsuki Tsuchigami, Yukina Kosaka, Harumi Yamazaki, Ken Yamamoto, Toshiyuki Sato, Ryu Nakayama, and so on. Given that certain famous animators had to go completely undercover here, the actual list of contributors is downright terrifying—and even more so is the fact that the episode lives up to their collective cache.

Across lengthy and long action shots, Sakazume proves his innate mindfulness when it comes to this type of work. It shows in details like the constant usage of human-sized mob enemies as a reference point for the enemy’s massive scale, the multiplanar setups where the camera pulling back affects the main characters a lot more than the unimaginably large foe, as well as the emphasis on strong wind atop the colossus to showcase just how high up there it is. His talented animation team more than lives up to those neat ideas: Shingo Yamashita’s depiction of Pecorine’s parkour across a giant, strongly reminiscent of some of his greatest work, is the type of awe-inspiring moment that will stick with me for years. A memorable scene that embodies the scale of this massive three-dimensional battle only someone like Sakazume could arrange.

We could wrap up this piece right here, but I feel like one detail is missing from this recipe, and skimping on ingredients wouldn’t do justice to an episode that pulled all the stops. If we return to the previous examples of similar—in scale and personnel—episodes, you’ll notice that the context to those is fairly different. While those are also youthful animation parties with one creator inviting all their talented friends, they either happened at large animation powerhouses or within productions that had already gathered a respectable list of high profile artists; or both, if your name is Mob Psycho. That is not really the case when it comes to PriConne, a series produced at a pretty new studio whose in-house staff only amounts to a tiny fraction of those who worked in this episode, and whose regular animation rotation is clearly skillful but not star-studded. So, what’s the trick?

Studio CygamesPictures was founded nearly 6 years ago, as a means for the massive corporation to have direct control over their own anime titles. While on paper their attempts to properly employ their staff and develop in-house departments sound good, the truth is that their growth is a deliberately sluggish process, and to this day the vast majority of CyPic workload is handled elsewhere or by freelancers—meaning that those better conditions don’t necessarily apply to the workers. Like all big companies whose revenue doesn’t actually rely on anime at all, it’s clear they can pull the plug at any second, so it’s hardly the kind of place you should look at as a source of hope for the anime industry. It is, however, the type of environment where you can shrug off costs more easily, and where individuals who love animation can exploit that.

One such individual is Kan Mizoguchi. He’s been working at CyPic for years, quietly but surely amassing an interesting list of freelance animation acquaintances, even during the production of PriConne’s first season. With the arrival of a fairly well-known animation producer like Kenta Ueuchi in the midst of it, the show’s management crew got revamped in the long lead to the sequel, including key promotions like making Mizoguchi a new production desk. Of course, being the animation nut that he is, you can bet that he decided to keep managing individual episodes despite his new series-wide responsibilities; episodes like, as you’ve likely already guessed, PriConne S2 #04. While thanking the team as a whole, Sakazume emphasized just how important Mizoguchi was for this episode to get finished at all. If you’ve ever worked on a team project, chances are that you’re already aware that operating at a scale larger than a project is designed to is sort of impossible—and turning that impossible into somewhat feasible is what anime’s best management personnel does.

The truth is that, even before this fourth episode, I already found myself praising Mizoguchi’s work; people that proactive about enabling the work of artists they love stand out, and I couldn’t be any happier that he got to boast about getting a shikishi by one of the elusive animation overlords who worked on the episode he put together. Ideally, episodes like this would be the natural product of this industry, rather than something that individuals like Mizoguchi and Umehara have to go completely out of their way for—sometimes to dangerous degrees. While things went relatively smoothly on this occasion, the ultimate conclusion is that this is no easily replicable recipe. The schedule of an up-and-coming star had to line up with that of a sequel that wasn’t rushed for a change, and then the management crew had to go out of their way not only to sustain that young star’s vision but to even amplify it. Whenever something goes right in anime, it always feels like it was enabled by a small series of miracles, but that’s precisely why you’ve got to appreciate these moments. Hurray for the Gourmet Guild’s grandest battle!

Episode 04

Storyboard, Episode Direction, Animation Direction: Takahito Sakazume
Animation Direction: Yosuke Fukumoto, Tokiemon Futsuzawa

Key Animation: Takashi Maenami, Ken Yamamoto, Kou Yoshinari, Shun Enokido, Ryu Nakayama, Tatsuya Yoshihara, Tooru Iwazawa, Kai Shibata, Ayaka Minoshima, Toshiyuki Sato, Koichi Kikuta, Hironori Tanaka, Shingo Yamashita, Yukei Yamada, Harumi Yamazaki, Naoya Nakayama, Eri Irei, Toshiya Kouno, Sute, Ren Onodera, HAHI, China, Itsuki Tsuchigami, Caprio, Masami Mori (Keisuke Mori, soty), Shunsuke Okubo, Kanata Yanagisawa, Shunji Akasaka, Keiichiro Saito, Shunsuke Takarai, Arifumi Imai But Written In Bullshit Kanji Because He’s Codirecting A Show Elsewhere You Know, Yukina Kosaka, Iori Hisatake, Sota Shigetsugu, Odashi, Rebecca Matsumoto, Ryugu-san, Tomado, FukurouP, Yosuke Fukumoto

Takahito Sakazume

Cygames Pictures
Shuhei Fuchimoto, Naoya Morotomi, Kanta Fukumi

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7 months ago

Great Read. Thanks for the article, kVin

7 months ago

This must hold the record for the most stacked episode in TV anime history. Never seen so many living legends participating in a single episode before.