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The Secret of One-Punch Man's Success

by Kevin Cirugeda,

One-Punch Man is one of the most impressive TV anime productions this year, one that casual fans and experts, viewers and industry members are equally amazed by. These fans are so impressed by its visuals that the character designer and chief animation director Chikashi Kubota had to put out a tweet to clear up some misconceptions, saying that even if people were getting the impression that the show is being supported by a large animation budget, the truth is that they are working with average figures. He went on to explain that what we are seeing is the product of passionate artists doing their best. Finding out exactly who is behind all this spectacular craft seems like a good idea, then.

You might think that pointing out the series director as the main creative force is unnecessary, but more than ever this project has Shingo Natsume's soul at its core. One-Punch Man is the natural outcome of his career and what will hopefully get fans to acknowledge his worth. It hasn't even been a decade since his first showing as Animation Director in Welcome to the NHK #4, which established him as a young animator to look out for due to his charismatic loose art and interesting layouts. His progression since then was nothing short of amazing – acquaintances secured him a spot as one of Gurren Lagann's regular animators, where amongst many other scenes he ended up animating a sequence in the finale together with Chikashi Kubota. Back then no one would have guessed those two would become the core team behind a project like One-Punch Man.

Natsume kept getting involved with notable animation pieces for a couple years until he got his chance to start his directional career. After a neat appetizer in the form of Umi Monogatari's OVA, he got his TV anime debut in Masaaki Yuasa's Tatami Galaxy of all things. With a confidence uncharacteristic of a newbie he crafted what might be the liveliest episode in the entire series, and already managed to attract a large number of talented animators who wanted to work with him. Seeing his modern projects act as magnets for skilled artists is less surprising when you realize he has always had that effect.

This short but hectic career filled with exciting projects had its paradigm shift with Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos, Natsume's feature film debut. Assisting Kazuya Murata and with the legendary Kenichi Konishi supervising the animation, they crafted one of the most impressive movies the anime industry has ever – and will ever – put out. Animation was as much of a character in the film as anyone in the cast, and motion blatantly took preference over design consistency and such. It's a wild animation spectacle that fully cemented his status as a sakuga director who will always be willing to embrace distinct styles that might not have a place in regular productions. Since the anime industry is mostly based on freelance connections and acquaintances, the more projects he's involved with the more skilled individuals he will keep meeting, increasing the chances of that talent being a pillar in his next production. And so we can enjoy the work of Sejoon Kim – the best modern Gundam animator – as a regular animation director in One-Punch Man because he had been assisting Natsume doing a few cuts in the past. It can't be understated how much this series benefits from his pedigree.

Another notable element of One-Punch Man's visuals is the digital animation, something also tied to Natsume's presence. Throughout the years he has kept collaborating with members of the web generation (webgen for short) of animators, mostly youngsters who uploaded their work onto the internet before going professional. His personal animation style shares many traits with them so it's no surprise that he has allowed free reign to pals like Gosei Oda and Norifumi Kugai, as well as other prominent figures of this movement like Ryuu Nakayama, Shun Enokido and Kenichi Fujisawa. Their idiosyncrasies are in full display, as the show makes no effort to hide them despite how at some points those stand out from the traditionally animated footage quite a lot. Rather than toning it down, Natsume has made them Action Animation Directors for the series and they have been trusted with climactic scenes like Kugai's final fight in the first episode.

The strength of this group of animators lies mostly in action pieces, especially when it comes down to effects and debris. This makes One-Punch Man the perfect playground for webgens, who get to draw spectacular fights with a massive scale and no concerns for subtlety. As a collective they are often accused of having weak fundamentals that lead to wobbly and nonsensical character acting, but there is no need to even worry about delicate motion in a series like this. They are masters of lasers, explosions and punches, and that's what they get to animate here.

In contrast to those digital animators stands Yoshimichi Kameda, who embodies the virtues of traditional animation. Anyone who has seen Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood knows Kameda, even if they aren't yet aware of it. His role of Main Animator lead him to working on 17 episodes, where he ended up being in charge of many of the series iconic scenes like Mustang and Lust's final showdown or King Bradley vs Greeling. If you recall any Brotherhood scene that truly stood out to you, chances are that it was Kameda's work. Summing up his style as “memorable” would be vague but appropriate – he has inherited many traits of the modern Kanada School of animation, from the sharp timing of his sequences to their progression from exaggerated pose to exaggerated pose, as well as having a tendency to draw angular effects. There's much more to him than that however, and one of the main reasons people quickly noticed his work was his ability to modulate the lineart and use intense strokes to animate fascinating sequences. Often you'll see his cuts switch to a calculated rough look during their climax, a thicker linework that can range from pencil-like to looking like sumi-e brushes gone wild on an ink painting. Add to that the effective usage of impact frames and you get an artist with a voice so strong it's impossible not to hear it.

And these quirks have all made it into One-Punch Man in significant fashion, of course; it's not just out of sheer talent that I feel Kameda deserves some spotlight, he definitely is one of the key staff members when it comes to the show's action. We're halfway through the series and he already has many important scenes under his belt, from the most demanding sequence in the first episode to the closing cut in the opening. His eye-catching style has even gotten him to draw promotional illustrations, and they even trusted him to draw the amusing cover art for the opening's single. Kameda's influence extends even beyond his work directly as a key animator and illustrator however, since his output as one of One-Punch Man's Action Animation Directors has already caught everyone's attention as well. Beyond what he directly animated in the third episode, you could feel his hand everywhere, the rough and thick lines reminding you who was in charge. Even during other animators’ notable sequences, a sudden spark of Kameda's flames was enough to steal the spotlight, because his drawings have an incredible screen presence. Kameda belongs to the select club of animators who are just unfairly talented.

As much praise as I can give to the animation staff though, there is someone else who deserves special credit. People who have read Yūsuke Murata's version of One-Punch Man – the one the anime is based on – know that even before the anime, the series already was animated. Sort of. Sometimes rather arbitrarily, Murata would go on to draw sequences step-by-step with a ridiculous level of detail, almost as if they were key animation sheets. Something he is capable of putting off because he's an exceptional and dedicated artist, but also because he is a fan of animation. For years we've known that he loves Yutaka Nakamura's work (who funnily enough, was one of the main animators in Shingo Natsume's last project), and his interests became even more obvious when he decided to do some actual key animation work for Majin Bone, an anime series he had done the original character designs for. As an adaptation, the One-Punch Man anime has been smart enough to do its own thing and play to the strengths of the new medium, but the series was already conceived with motion in mind. It only feels right that the work of a genius mangaka with a passion for animation would end up being adapted by animation fanatics.

I don't believe One-Punch Man's adaptation is perfect by any stretch, since the strength of the craft seems extremely lopsided towards animation – the direction is simply functional, only Natsume's boards so far have stood above a pedestrian level, and the backgrounds and palette are subpar. Seeing how well it works in spite of that only makes the work of this animation team feel more amazing however, since it makes it clear that they can support the show on their own. One-Punch Man is an amusing yet simple concept carried by exceptional execution, be it Murata's art in the manga or this team's incredible animation in the TV series. Under normal circumstances it could get tiresome rather fast, but it has been blessed with artists who can turn this one gag into a full series that's always exciting to look at. Chikashi Kubota asked everyone to acknowledge their work and efforts, and I think they have earned that.

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