Bocchi the Rock! – The More Outrageous The Comedy Animation, The More Compelling The Loneliness And Growth

Bocchi the Rock! – The More Outrageous The Comedy Animation, The More Compelling The Loneliness And Growth

Bocchi the Rock is an outrageous comedy bursting with the bombastic creativity of its young team, and at the same time, it’s also a genuinely compelling coming-of-age story of a deeply dysfunctional girl. This is how its creators have sought to synergize the two sides of the story they found inseparable.

Bocchi the Rock’s sharp humor, its willingness to distort its titular character in creepy ways within a genre where marketable pretty girls are often seen as a must, and its potential as an underdog coming-of-age story are all qualities that the core staff behind the anime quickly identified. Perhaps above everything else, though, what allowed it to resonate with series director Keiichiro Saito was the characters’ sense of individuality and marked interiority. Saito initially expected the idealized view of friendship that’s characteristic of Manga Time Kirara-adjacent works, hence his positive surprise when he met a collection of individuals that, while certainly friendly with each other, exist first and foremost as individuals, regardless of their relationships with others.

As if to make their bad pun about ties more questionable, Kessoku Band’s members aren’t exactly attached at the hip 24/7, or even chasing a clear shared dream for that matter. They all have motivations of their own that they don’t quickly open up to others about, and there’s a deliberate sense of distance between them that Saito immediately came to appreciate as a distinct quality of this work—and something he could relate to more personally, as someone who also struggles with interpersonal communication. I bet Bocchi herself would mistake him for an ally, before groveling at his feet once she realized that he’s infinitely more functional and already leading a young team to tremendous success in his directorial debut.

For as funny as the source material already is, and how that surprisingly authentic cast gets you to root for them, there’s no denying that the 4-koma format simply isn’t suited for involved storytelling. Saito and his team sought to expand Bocchi the Rock according to the untapped potential they felt, which is a deceptively complex task for works like this; transitioning from manga to anime tends to involve filling in gaps that even detail-oriented authors can afford to abbreviate in comic form, and in the case of 4-koma, the new connective tissue can amount to more content than the entire source material.

While it’s not as flashy as some other aspects of this adaptation, the job they’ve done in this regard is already one of this team’s greatest triumphs. Saito and writer Erika Yoshida first thought of organic ways to extend and rearrange the content, as shown in decisions like moving around events like the band’s fun promotional photos trip, justified in-universe as the characters being considerate over all the practicing that the new members had been doing. In this process, they also quickly realized that realism shouldn’t be their one guiding light, hence why much of their tweaking also involves turning passing jokes into full-blown recurring gags, as well as moving around punchlines to emphasize the surrealism.

Frankly, they could have settled at that point, and Bocchi the Rock would have been a very funny series. The nonchalantly acerbic nature of the source material and the irreverent spirit of the team led by Saito are such a perfect match that they’d have gotten away with just vaguely gesturing at the growth of its walking mess of a protagonist. Their wildly creative delivery of already amusing gags is compelling on its own, so why care about anything else? The answer is simple: no one involved, with Saito at the forefront, wanted to punch down on the likes of Bocchi. They were willing to turn up her dysfunctionality to eleven in spectacular ways, but only because that would increase the contrast with her quiet moments of solitude, because they’d make the rare instance where she gets to be proactive look more heroic. That’s how the only way they saw of selling a character like Bocchi, and I would say that they’ve been immediately proven right; you’ll struggle to find a single viewer who doesn’t think that the protagonist is an irreparable galactic mess, but also a single one who isn’t fond of her regardless.

Bocchi is in a different plane of existence even in Saito’s opening, though hopefully they’ll meet after finally disappearing together.

You don’t have to wait for long to see how Bocchi the Rock’s comedy and compelling character beats go hand in hand. By which I mean, the very introduction as directed and storyboarded by Saito himself already sums it up. We first see the protagonist in her youth, isolated from the rest of the class. The toys scattered around her visually mark her personal space, one that at this point she is likely unaware she feels the need to protect. The other kids playing around eventually trap her, before cutting to another shot that highlights her isolation. Smooth match cuts bring us to similar situations as she grows up, before eventually reaching her home. The colors during this entire flashback are noticeably muted—that is, until she springs into action after hearing that music can be a path to a more vibrant life, hence a bright doorway leading to the guitar. All of this could be a textbook character drama, but since this is Bocchi the Rock, it also served the purpose of building up to a funny punchline: by the end of the flashback, she’s physically holed up in an even darker, more cramped place than before. Where did that vibrant life go again?

In between purely visual gags, and funny quips from the manga that can be delivered smoothly thanks to the articulate character animation, you’ll keep finding moments where that outlandish humor meets character-building. Nijika’s meeting Bocchi in this first episode follows a similar pattern as the introduction, though this time frontloading the punchline where the protagonist projects her misery onto an innocent bystander… before profusely apologizing about their mistaken comradery. We once again see isolated Bocchi compositions, where this time it’s the fences around the swing—a motif so important that it accompanies the title in the opening—that starkly represent her personal space. Nijika’s arrival and mindful stepping into Bocchi’s comfort zone is framed to emphasize how easily she can bring herself to take that first step; something that Bocchi struggles immensely with, and in the rare occasion she does it, it’s a timid stride in the wrong direction.

That first step imagery that represents the will to be proactive is all over the first episode, and always with Bocchi being strung along or lagging behind. That is, until she finally makes a major decision by herself: her declaration, or rather implication, that she intends to stick around the band and grow with them as a person… for someone with subhuman standards of personhood, anyway. This completely flips the script, almost physically so; after all those low-angle shots of first steps, Bocchi’s change is actually shown through a very amusing high-angle sequence. A humorous delivery that also continues to sell her relative character growth in a compelling way, which is to say, Bocchi the Rock in a nutshell. No better follow-up to this than the next episode immediately reverting to that standard framing of a step as Bocchi takes action in the most dysfunctional way possible. Still a long road ahead for her.

When it comes to the changes in the framing of this story, nothing stands out more than the spaciousness of the layouts, something that the original 4-koma simply didn’t have the real estate to even attempt to do. Ever since the start, those impressive three-dimensional layouts have dwarfed Bocchi, underlined her loneliness, and simply showcased how intimidating the world is to her. The second episode follows it up nicely, with some nuance to Saito’s boards again. These two consecutive shots are framed from similar angles, yet they face opposite directions and have similarly contrasting moods; as tight as both spaces are, Nijika’s daily life feels cozy and orderly, while Bocchi feels like she’s facing an ordeal just to open a door. The funniest example of such contrasts comes when Saito’s nuance meets an overt joke in the script about it—you couldn’t illustrate the difference between loners and independent folks in a better way than Hayate Nakamura’s animation over here.

It’s precisely the input of other idiosyncratic artists like Nakamura that makes Bocchi the Rock such a joyfully diverse experience. In a production led by young creatives making their debut, for a title they deemed multifaceted since the start, it would have made no sense for them to enforce strict guidelines when it comes to the delivery. The core staff is doing an extraordinary amount of hands-on work to demonstrate their ideal version of this series, but whenever the job is entrusted to their pals, they’re willing to roll with whatever nonstandard means of expression they’ve come up with. As long as the message that is being conveyed remains the same, any mechanism goes, even if it’s assistant series director Yusuke “Nara” Yamamoto opening up the third episode by popping up a balloon to represent Bocchi’s identity crisis. Animation producer Shouta Umehara, responsible for gathering such an irreverent team in the first place, noted that he’ll find himself asking them if they really want to pull off whatever unprecedented madness the staff just proposed, then immediately cave in when it turns out that they do believe in that idea.

Nara’s third episode is perhaps the most formally transgressive one, in a series where not a single director so far has made an effort to stay within the realm of standard, commercial TV animation. At the same time, though, his approach to depicting Bocchi’s tale as compelling character growth and an unmitigated funny disaster is conceptually very similar to Saito’s—after all, he’s his assistant. The layouts are weaponized in a similar fashion, and if anything, Nara comes across as just a bit more detail-oriented in an episode that precisely rides on Bocchi’s unexpected perceptiveness. Despite looking otherwise superhuman to her introverted eyes, the newly arrived Kita feels constrained to Bocchi during the live performance, as she still wanted to join their band but could never bring herself to ask for it after running away from them. His storyboards switching their focus to hands is a nice way to build up to the eventual reveal that she’d noticed the calluses on Kita’s hands from practicing as well. And once again, Bocchi the Rock brings balance to the universe by making her fall apart in a bombastic way after a display of understated positive qualities.

With the fourth episode, we get to address an important question: in a show where individual creators are given tremendous freedom, how do the directors outside of the core staff manage that duality of irreverent comedy and genuine character growth? Looking at Nobuhide Kariya’s TV direction debut, the answer is unique yet coherent, very much in Bocchi the Rock fashion. His episode is thus far the wildest showcase of 2D animation in the show, with recurring sakuga aces like Akira Hamaguchi putting together their funkiest work yet. While the likes of Saito and Nara clearly find the departure from the norm inherently enjoyable, Kariya’s still broad view of animation feels more pointed, switching to specific styles for the sake of one self-contained and fully-realized visual gag, while also benefitting from the show’s overarching diversity to sell mismatches. If there was a competition within the team to see who can break its protagonist the best (worst?), Kariya would be in the lead, with a beautiful assist by Toshiyuki Sato.

If the episode feels somewhat distinct at its loudest, so it does at its quietest. Kariya’s boards find ways to separate Bocchi from the rest of the group in stark yet organic ways, and they accentuate the physical distance between them during conversations in ways previous episodes didn’t. Her meeting with Ryo at the fancy café is an elegant reinterpretation of Saito’s visual gag in the second episode; rather than a cartoony earthquake separating the two, this time it’s subtler cues like the direction of their gazes that separates the loner from the strong independent girl. Not financially independent, though, since she made Bocchi pick up the tab and won’t be paying her back anytime soon.

And so we reach the last episode to date, which once again stands out in its own way. At this point in the story, the members of the band are asked to look back on their growth, and we’re also due a bit of a retrospective as the episode embodies some key aspects we’ve neglected to talk about so far. As of this point, character designer and chief animation director Kerorira has key animated around 250 cuts—nearly the equivalent of an entire episode if you add establishing shots and such—on top of directly supervising 1.5 episodes and handling all the duties that correspond to his position. Rather than purely focusing on correcting other people’s animation, which he’s also doing to some degree, he decided to lead the animation by example, providing tons of cuts himself so that the other members of the team had an easier time visualizing their work. Not restrictive guidelines, as he’s also encouraging his peers to embrace their own styles, but the embodiment of core ideas they thought were important for this show. After reducing his intended level of detail according to Saito’s demands, Kerorira’s blueprints have embraced three simple ideas: inherently amusing movement, character specificity, and shameless anime-ness; paraphrasing, I promise.

At this point, you shouldn’t be surprised that Bocchi the Rock has easily matched concepts that could appear to be in opposition. Kerorira outright rejected realism, insisting on details like Nijika’s vague triangle of an ahoge and Bocchi’s essentially floating side tail during the design process, but he also emphasized the aspects that represent their individuality—such as the latter always being drawn hunched over, like the gremlin she is. Between his directions and the degree of stylization, other members of the team have had an easier time clearly animating everyone’s specific body language, which could be prohibitively taxing on a production that is tight on time otherwise. As this fifth episode proves, a fundamentally sound vision of how your characters behave amounts to more effective acting than uncontrolled outbursts of character animation.

One of the best examples of the team attempting to make the characters always feel like themselves comes in a highlight for a music-themed title like this: the performances and eventual concerts. As confirmed in an interview for Purizm, the production of those sequences is a multi-stage process that begins by recording actors, then switches to a CG previz with virtual cameras so the staff can frame it as they please, before being animated in what ends up being a fully hand drawn image for the finished product. You might think that adding this many layers endangers the character specificity of the animation, but those actors are first briefed with information about the cast, hence why they feel so recognizable and authentically reactive. From Bocchi constantly looking down to Nijika making eye contact and communicating with Ryo—in part because playing the drums is so involved that it was a struggle to add her personality to the performance—the Kessoku Band members never stop feeling like themselves.

And that still applies to the show as well. Although that performance was the focus of episode #05, hence why Bocchi the Rock’s live performance director Yusuke Kawakami was in charge this week, the bombastic side of this work never overshadows its quieter qualities. In an episode dedicated to Bocchi wondering if the band, if she herself, has truly grown to the point of earning the opportunity to play in front of an audience, Kawakami’s boards spell out the answer before she does. As tongue-in-cheek as the scenes that demonstrate it are, Bocchi has grown in her own way. She has vacated the classroom she was once lonely in, proactively inviting Kita to the same place she’d once wanted her out of. Even during that performance, Kawakami spares a moment to equate the effect her new friends have had on her to the reverberations of the music on a plastic bottle reflecting them.

Although it’s the wild energy of its comedy that is catching the eye of most people, Bocchi the Rock is just as dedicated to the coming-of-age story of its impossibly messy protagonist. Those two aspects are as deeply interwoven as all the unconventional techniques used in the show, because the team felt that you couldn’t have one without the other if you intended to retain the spirit of the original work. So far, they’ve been switching registers as effortlessly as they change visual styles, reinforcing each part in the process. Gosh, isn’t that elegant delivery?

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14 days ago

Fantastic write up of potentially the best show of the season in a super stacked season.

7 days ago

I actually would like to ask anyone who’ve done freelance work for shows like this one.

Can I get a list of all the production companies in the eastern countries that western animation studios like Tonari and Powerhouse studios have worked with?

Not for the sake of reaching out to those PAs (production assistants) but to be aware of them.