10 Moments of Spectacular Animation from 2015by Kevin Cirugeda, Dec 16th 2015
As the year comes to an end it's common for people to list their favorite new pieces of media, and anime is no exception to that custom. We can go further than a list of the best TV series of 2015 however, what about the greatest moments of animation of the year? While the craft can never be fully separated from the content and emotional attachment will always amplify the effect a scene can have, it's certainly possible – and not all that rare! – to find very powerful pieces of animation in otherwise lesser shows. And that's bound to give some variety to this compilation, which is by no means a Top 10; there is no competition and no particular order, this is simply a look back at this year of anime to highlight 10 memorable animated scenes.
One-Punch Man Episode #1
The series has yet to finish and is sure to deliver some of its most impressive sequences in its finale, yet One-Punch Man already has enough worthwhile material to fill up an entire list of this kind. A project blessed with renowned artists doing their best, but also one where newbies that haven't been doing key animation for even a year can pull scenes like this. Visual spectacle is as important of an element as it already was on Murata's version of the manga, and that's been obvious since the very beginning; that is why I would choose Yoshimichi Kameda's action scene from the episode 1 as the first highlight, since that is what instantly set this series apart from most action anime. The dynamic camerawork and rather elaborate setpiece are above what we expect from a TV project, and Kameda's fascinating idiosyncrasies are in full display – the body motion composed of wild poses, the wild lineart, even his jaw-dropping, sumi-e style impact frames. A scene that oozes confidence in its craft, where all hits have a heavy impact and the scale feels genuinely big. An exceptional way to set the tone for what was to come in One-Punch Man, for sure one of the peaks of Japanese animation in 2015.
Go! Princess Precure Episode #1
On a similar note, there was another 2015 series that started with a bang, perhaps unexpectedly so. As a long running Toei franchise, Precure doesn't often get notable productions, and its (admittedly very impressive) peaks are often few and far apart. The current iteration – Go! Princess Precure – decided to break that trend by having excellent action sequences every handful of episodes, with a new approach to action that was quickly made apparent as Shingo Fujii made everyone's jaws drop with this scene. Three-dimensional camerawork on a fully hand drawn scene, cool stylized effects and above all, a perfect portrayal – a young magical girl pulling off crazy moves, but who clearly isn't comfortably in charge of the powers she's just been given. Making her clumsiness apparent within a sequence that still flows incredibly well is no small feat.
Fujii had been working on the franchise for a while, but his animation before this felt restrained and lacking, not even close to his output on works like Star Driver that had made people consider him one of the best webgen animators. Finally paired with a director like Yūta Tanaka who could provide him ambitious action storyboards and who embraced his distinct animation, Fujii got to prove his actual worth. Ever since then he has been refining this style, always attempting to make the battlefields feel like an actual three-dimensional space and with many flashy slowmo sequences. He's arguably topped himself with even more impressive scenes, but I will hold his work on the first episode dear as the one that first showed something I never expected I would see in this franchise.
Rolling Girls Episode #8
The first word that comes to mind when I think of Rolling Girls is “inconsistent”, both narratively and when it comes to the production. And I don't mind “mildly uneven”, Rolling Girls is a wild ride with highs and lows that are worlds apart. That of course means that when the show looks good, it really does. Similarly, its animation highlights easily earned a place in this list even though the series is also full of extremely rushed and uncorrected episodes. What stands out the most throughout are Arifumi Imai's wonderful cuts, which peak at the colorful climax of episode 8. Over the last couple of years Imai seems to have leveled up from a youngster with potential to a name everyone acknowledges, and it was Rolling Girls that highlighted one of his strongest assets: his effects drawings. Particularly so when he's given material like this, unrestricted freedom to draw FX in many shapes and a rich palette to make them beautiful. He's an animator whose work is easy to appreciate even in still shots, and scenes like his best Rolling Girls ones fill me with hope. Hope that Imai keeps getting the chance to work with directors like Kotomi Deai who share his love for vivid colors. Because as cool as his work on dreary series can be, there's nothing quite like his chromatic explosions.
Sound! Euphonium Episode #5
Let's calm down from all this intense action to draw attention to some restrained but equally masterful work. This might surprise people who have seen the series, but one of my issues with Sound! Euphonium's first episodes was the animation; not because it was bad by any stretch, it was all as polished as you'd expect from a KyoAni production, and since the very beginning the movie-level 2D instrument art was enough for top animators to lose their mind over it. But it lacked some spark. The character acting was adequate yet stiff, not as lively as you'd want from a series like this. Then episode 5 arrives, with plenty of neat little pieces of animation leading to this climax. Cartoony character art that portrays Kumiko's awkward reaction after thinking she screwed up when talking to the girl she'd been meaning to approach, followed by a genuine smile and hair animation as detailed as you could ever hope for. Coupled with the extremely impressive postproduction, this short scene is an excellent display of the range animation has as a medium. After this point and thanks to assets being freed from the movie the studio had been producing, great bits of character animation became a lot more common. The general rule of TV anime is that productions decay throughout their run, but Sound! Euphonium strongly reversed that tendency. And what started it happened to be that beautiful smile.
Absolute Duo Opening Sequence
I'd mentioned at first that finding excellent craft within mediocre projects is certainly possible, and here is a perfect example. The likely soon to be forgotten light novel adaptation Absolute Duo wasn't exactly an impressive production, yet here it is represented thanks to its opening that Ryouma Ebata directed, storyboarded and key animated all by himself. His name has been gaining a lot of recognition as of late thanks to multiple solo appearances like that, which have helped fans identify his personal quirks; his stylish approach to character motion with a solid realistic foundation yet enough exaggeration to stand out, easy to appreciate in what some already call Ebata Walk scenes. But while Absolute Duo's opening has some of that, this time he mostly put his talent into action sequences. That same snappy timing applied to fast-paced scenes with drawings loose enough to make it all flow perfectly. I don't think anyone expected spectacular fighting acrobatics chaining into a beautiful dance from this show, but that's an excellent surprise gift.
Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works Episode #17
2015 wasn't exactly kind to ufotable, usually one of the very few exceptions to the rule of messy TV anime productions. Their busy schedule and overwork forced them to break studio traditions and rely more heavily on outsourcing, and even then they have ended up facing issues they'd never suffered before. Not the best context within which to put out an ambitious animation endeavor like Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works, which they'd been hyping themselves as a project where unlike Fate/Zero, their animation team would get the spotlight over their CG crowd. A promise they didn't quite live up to, seeing how in the end the series heavily relied on digital effects to cover the shortcomings of a production that started strong but lost steam fast. Despite the less than ideal situation however, UBW a really strong asset to carry most climax scenes – Nozomu Abe, the master of FX and debris. And of his work there, the most impressive work was the Lancer vs Archer confrontation. Despite the heavy postprocessing it's impossible to miss his 2D effects overload, filling the screen at all times. His overwhelming style is a perfect fit for climactic moments like this, short bursts of animation beyond TV anime level.
Blood Blockade Battlefront Episode #1
People who have followed BONES anime for a while might be aware of what Yutaka Nakamura's role in their series is. In an industry where the majority of animators are freelancers picking up as much work as they possibly can, Nakamura – lovingly nicknamed Yutapon by fans – is a BONES employee with a contract tying him to the studio exclusively, who often shows up in productions to just animate one scene or two. And why that superstar treatment? Well, because he can draw stuff like this. The sense of speed it builds up, the organic morphing animation, the huge scale that swinging cut portrays despite the battle not making much spatial sense, all adorned with his personal quirks like the pencil impact frames and the cubic debris. It's rare to see scenes this densely packed with distinct styles and techniques, and executing all of them so well is even more exceptional. Yutapon has been one of the best action specialists in the industry for long enough to be a big influence on the new generations of animators, and the idea of youngsters learning from him is frankly appealing.
Animator Expo, Nishi-Ogikubo
It would feel wrong not to bring up Animator Expo when talking about the most precious moments of animation 2015 has brought us. And after its (so far) three short seasons, the sakuga spectacle that's impressed me the most is still Nishi-Ogikubo. “Scale” is the key element of this short movie about a woman who's become a cockroach and thus greatly shrunk; many of its best sequences play around the idea of traversing a familiar setting that's now become dangerous for her and interacting with oversized objects. Amongst them all, my personal favorite is this scene by Nishi Ogikubo's original author, Takeshi Honda himself – an ambitious sequence using lots of background animation to make the setting feel huge, as she desperately chases her husband across the room. Technically outrageous and very illustrative of the aim of this film, without a doubt a scene I'll treasure.
Shirobako Episode #23
As someone who perceives animation as a fundamental narrative element rather than a complimentary storytelling tool, I feel the need to talk about some powerful scenes that were made impactful by the visual execution. Powerful narrative beats can happen in scenes with barely any words spoken, as the climax of Shirobako #23 proves. All of Aoi's worries come to an end, as not only are her work related problems on track to be fixed but her friend who she'd been worrying about finally caught a break. All while fulfilling their dream of working together. They express their relief in completely opposite ways – Aoi can't stop herself from crying, while Zuka smiles from the bottom of her heart for the first time in a long while. The entire series built up to this moment, and it's their delicate gestures that make it feel grand.
Shirobako as a whole isn't a notable production, and its craft highlights mostly come from the very appropriate industry cameos (how cool is it to have Gundam Unicorn's main effects artist in charge of the scene drawn by Musani's effects expert?!). That scene however was the labor of love of Nishihata Ayumi and Yuriko Ishii, one of the show's main animators and P.A. Works’ best character artist respectively. In a vacuum this wouldn't be a technical masterpiece by any stretch, but within context it's one of the most rewarding scenes I've experienced.
Sound! Euphonium Episode #12
And to end with another emotionally satisfying piece of animation, back to Sound! Euphonium once again. Kumiko is quietly walking home, until the frustration she's been building up for 12 episodes explodes and she breaks into a sprint; her newfound love for music and the goals she yearns for have created a very intense desire to improve that her own skills can't always keep up with. The running starts with an excellent 3D tracking shot that marries CG and 2D craft, and what follows is equally outstanding - insanely polished drawings, a quick succession of good layouts and a constant flow of people to make it feel like an actual part of a city. The attention to detail is palpable, as you notice things like her hair progressively losing its usual fluffy form the more she runs. A girl sprinting through a bridge is perfectly ordinary content, yet everything about the execution elevates this to a truly special moment.
Much like the previous Sound! Euphonium scene, this belongs to an episode directed by Yoshiji Kigami; he took a directional break in 2014 after handling the best animated TV anime episode of 2013, and his comeback this year has been certainly impressive. A very experienced master animator who now as a director can breathe life into mundane situations and make them shine. Very few people have such a grasp on this medium as he does, so we should treasure his exceptional work.
Since 10 is an arbitrary number and a whole year contains more cartoon goodness than a single article can dissect, I'm ending this while still thinking of many lovely moments of animation. Death Parade's striking skating scene with lots of Takashi Kojima cuts, Hachiman's emotional catharsis in My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU TOO! by Tetsuya Takeuchi, the extraordinary weighty action in Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? #8, Kou Yoshinari's unbelievable CG-like drawings on Seraph of the end, the explosions of young talent on webgen series like Yatterman Night and Monster Musume… And of course this has all been mostly focused on TV productions since the availability of OVA and movies in the west isn't always the best, but those larger productions are logically full of notable scenes as well! From the flashy finale of Little Witch Academia 2 with the Yoshinari School of effects in full display, to a lot more grounded scenes like Toshiyuki Inoue's work on Miss Hokusai, there's plenty of work outside of TV series I've loved this year. Even a film I haven't actually had the chance to see yet like Boruto has won me over thanks to this spectacular preview!
And so, what were your favorite moments of animation in 2015? Were they quiet and understated scenes serving a narrative purpose, or were they thrilling action sequences seeking visual spectacle? Let us know in the forums!
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