The Secret of Studio SHAFTby Nick Creamer,
There aren't too many anime studios with serious "studio reputations" in the broader anime community. Gainax is one of the big names, though their star has faded in recent years, leading into much of their community goodwill being picked up by the recent Studio Trigger. Studios like MADHOUSE and A-1 Pictures release a great number of anime, but aren't necessarily associated with a single "core style," being more platforms for a wide variety of individual creators. In fact, when it comes to "house style," there are two modern names that tend to be brought up more than any others - Kyoto Animation and SHAFT. Well, I covered Kyoto Animation, so I suppose it's time to talk SHAFT.
The two do have something in common, outside of their reputations as “known quantities” with clear stylistic throughlines. In the anime community, what they have in common is meme identities - their shows are often disregarded as all the same, either visually or narratively, in spite of the myriad interesting differences separating their works. But it is true that each of them possess a distinctive studio culture that sets them apart from other studios. I've talked about how Kyoto Animation promote a healthier work environment and in-studio training, resulting in routinely polished works that somehow demand far fewer animators than their competitors' products. So today let's talk about SHAFT - what forces led them to become such a known and specific quantity in the anime community, and what strengths ultimately set them apart.
SHAFT is at this point associated with some very specific stylistic tics. Minimalist and often abstract/interpretation-friendly backgrounds are one element of this, clear in works from Monogatari to Nisekoi to Hidamari Sketch. Massive shifts in background art and even art design between airing and bluray editions is another, as well as the self-conscious theatrical leanings of shows like ef and March comes in like a lion. And of course, the inescapable, neck-breaking head tilt is a staple of their productions, and something Akiyuki Shinbo has even acknowledged as a studio signature.
Shinbo himself is also one of the studio's trademarks, as his Head Director title stands at the top of basically all of their recent productions. But the ubiquity of his name should be a clue to the strangeness of his job. No human being could truly direct all the shows Shinbo is credited for, and his name has a way of dampening criticism of the individual qualities that make the directors beneath him shine. There is a lot more to SHAFT than their visual tropes, and even what is known about them can be very misleading. So let's start at the top with that Shinbo name, and see if we can draw a clearer picture of SHAFT along the way.
Akiyuki Shinbo is certainly a fascinating artist in his own right, one who honed a very distinctive style through the 90s and early 00s. While he directed a fair number of OVAs in his early years, his first widely known claim to fame came as an episode director on Yū Yū Hakusho. His episodes during the Dark Tournament arc reflect many of the qualities that would come to define his work even at SHAFT - a preference for bold, striking color palettes that jump off the screen or even clash, and compositions that make an interpretive, contiguous tapestry of the whole screen.
Shinbo isn't an artist who seems terribly interested in naturalism, or in creating a world the audience could conceivably fall into or believe in as a real place. His visual preferences fall towards the opposite end of the spectrum - visual compositions as emotive spectacles, where the background, lighting, and effects work seem to “feel” the action in the same way the characters do. And his framing of characters also plays into this, as hyper closeups and strange angular shots make them expressive more as physical objects filling the screen than human beings conveying emotion through expressions and body language. He has described himself as being interested such visually aggressive elements of production from a young age (an excerpt from this instructive interview), as well as not being terribly interested in narrative content. Shinbo sculpts moods through visual violence, favoring loud, striking compositions over the portrayal of a consistent world.
Shinbo's star continued to rise across more OVAs, before his style reached an early culmination in releases like Soul Taker and Le Portrait de Petite Cossette. It was at this point, in 2004, when Shinbo's fortunes and SHAFT were aligned. Though SHAFT had existed as an anime subcontractor and occasional collaborator for many years, it was the retirement of former studio head Hiroshi Wakao and ascent of current president Mitsutoshi Kubota that marked the birth of the studio as it currently exists. Kubota wanted SHAFT to truly stand out, to have their own signature in a crowded animation landscape. And with Shinbo's help, the tenets of that signature were defined.
Creating a defined “SHAFT house style” wouldn't just give SHAFT a visual calling card - it would smooth the process of transitioning from production of one show to the next, as Kubota himself has described (from another handy interview). Along with Shinbo himself, the “Team Shinbo” responsible for defining this style included Tatsuya Oishi and Shin Oonuma, two professional friends of Shinbo's with clear stylistic strengths of their own. It is the conscious choice to settle on and refine this “SHAFT style” that gives all of their shows a somewhat cohesive, distinct visual identity. The ostentatious backgrounds, the sometimes sterile tone, the odd cuts, the juxtaposition of flat colors or real-world objects - that's all part of the visual language of these core creators, something Kubota and Shinbo beneath him overtly chose to embrace.
The fact that these traits reappear across so many of SHAFT's shows points to Shinbo's current role at the company. Though he did indeed direct a variety of interesting shows in his early years, he hasn't done any hands-on directing for quite some time. Shinbo occupies a more supervisory role at the company, dictating tone, collaborating and discussing work with other key staff on shows like Madoka Magica, and ensuring SHAFT productions generally “feel” like, well, SHAFT productions.
But even if SHAFT has self-consciously chosen to align its output with Shinbo's name, to call the studio and all the works produced by it “Shinbo works” would be a vast discredit to the many talented, unique creators leaving their own marks on SHAFT shows, or who have carried elements of the “Team Shinbo” style to other companies.
Shin Oonuma is one such notable ex-pat. As one of the core members of Team Shinbo, Oonuma was one of the key voices defining the revitalized SHAFT aesthetic. Though he directed several early "new SHAFT" shows like Pani Poni Dash! and Negima!?, the best example of his work at SHAFT might be the ef franchise: ef: a tale of memories and ef: a tale of melodies. In that series, you can see a variety of the stylistic tricks that would later be cannibalized for use on shows like Monogatari. Note how the visual composition of this train station sequence, with the foreground objects adding a sense of discord to an otherwise harmonious visual landscape, is mirrored in one of Monogatari's climactic arcs. His work is evocative in a way that sets it apart from Shinbo's; rather than creating holistic compositions with a focus on an overall visual effect over all else, his work restlessly leans on the actual narrative variables, echoing the feelings of the characters involved.
After leaving SHAFT, Oonuma went on to become a major creative voice at SILVER LINK SILVER LINK aren't really known for their beautiful productions, but you can still see Oonuma's talent in shows like WATAMOTE, C3, or Dusk maiden of Amnesia. The stark lighting, strong compositions, and angular, often purely metaphorical backgrounds reflect his voice and his roots. Those ostentatious foreground elements and gorgeous sense of color have stuck around, as well. Even in a run-of-the-mill light novel adaptation, you can see Oonuma and his new compatriots' visual flair in sequences like this ridiculous, extremely indulgent match cut.
Shinichi Omata is another key SHAFT ex-pat. After contributing to SHAFT productions like Arakawa Under the Bridge and Hidamari Sketch, he went on to provoke another artistic renaissance, this time at the oft-maligned Studio DEEN. Omata's presence added a theatrical and composition-savvy touch to shows like Sankarea, before he finally got the chance to direct the phenomenal Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū (a triumph I've discussed before).
But even those who've remained at SHAFT have ultimately developed strong individual voices. Some of them have always been dramatically gifted directors, like Tatsuya Oishi. Considered the third pillar of Team Shinbo, he directed the first season of Monogatari before disappearing for years, working diligently on the followup film Kizumonogatari (a story that's been covered in great detail elsewhere).
The Monogatari series itself offers a clear example of the contrast in SHAFT directorial styles, in the contrast between Tatsuya Oishi's Kizumonogatari films and the series proper. Though it's inherently unfair to compare a film with years of development time to a TV series suffering from constant scheduling crunch, you can see the clear difference in aesthetic priorities between Oishi's Kizu (a bizarre mix of sumptuous traditional animation and incongruous 3D spaces) and the later Monogatari seasons. Under Tomoyoki Itamura's direction, those seasons have embraced a more animation-minimal (by necessity) but visually cohesive design, focusing on sharp color contrasts and far more narrative loyalty to the source material (along with more distinctly partitioned but still evocative style shifts). Even two directors adapting the same franchise at a studio as ostensibly "visually cohesive" as SHAFT will create two noteworthy and wildly different productions.
If you've somehow survived this long, you can hopefully see that even though the “SHAFT style” is a very real thing, it's not necessarily a mark of artistic laziness, and also not an inescapable limitation on the studio's output. Individual creators are still leaving their mark on all manner of SHAFT productions, and their former creators are now enriching a vast swathe of anime productions. Even if the “SHAFT style” can feel a bit overbearing at times, SHAFT still employ a diverse and talented staff of creators, and are regularly creating works worth celebrating on their own terms. They're probably still gonna stick with the head tilts, though.
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